Graduate Training for Engineers Advances Potential of Wide Bandgap Power Electronics

Achievement date: 

Wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors are a developing technology that improves performance of power electronics systems beyond the limits of traditional silicon-based designs. To prepare engineers to work with and advance development of this technology, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UTK) established a design-oriented, hands-on WBG graduate degree program for MS and PhD students. The program, called PoTENNtial, is led by UTK, in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Center for Ultra-Wide-Area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks (CURENT), an NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) supported by NSF and the U.S. Department of Energy and headquartered at UTK, with partner organizations including Northeastern University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Tuskegee University.


Though incremental gains are still being made in silicon power devices, the technology is very mature. The material characteristics inherent in WBG semiconductors make them suitable for high-performance use in power electronics. UTK established the WBG graduate program as a traineeship that provides comprehensive WBG power electronics fundamentals, rigorous hands-on training in simulation and experimental work with WBG semiconductor devices, and professional development activities. The United States is a world leader in developing WBG, and this program is providing essential research while developing the workforce that will apply and enhance its application in the future. Among the successes of the program to date are recruitment and retention of a diverse, U.S. citizen graduate student body; development of a hands-on focus in the graduate education program; comprehensive training of students on the use of WBG power electronics technologies; and, development of education materials that are broadly disseminated for others to use.


The use of power electronics is prolific in modern society. Laptop chargers, computer power supplies, solar photovoltaic systems, electric vehicle powertrains, audio amplifiers, and cardiac pacemakers are just a few examples of applications requiring high performance power electronics. Power converters designed for these functions may convert various types and magnitudes of voltages or currents between their input and output. Converter design is a complex system of tradeoffs between performance, efficiency, size, reliability, and other metrics. When selecting power semiconductor devices to implement a converter, the characteristics of each device needs to be considered, including how they will impact the overall system.

The program funds two years of graduate study. Twenty-four credits of coursework are needed for an MS, while between 24-39 credits are required for a PhD, depending on prior degrees. Coursework for the traineeship is selected by each student and may include power electronics, power systems, microelectronics, controls, radio frequency (the oscillation rate of an alternating electric current or voltage), entrepreneurship/innovation, and/or professional preparations courses. All students in the traineeship must complete a thesis as part of their degree; the topic for the thesis will include the use of wide bandgap semiconductors in power electronics.