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May 13, 2022

ASU’s AMPED Science and Technology Center Helps Energize New Economic Initiative

Arizona is in search of a high-tech industry, and one of the lures are five science and technology centers being built by Arizona State University.

The centers are a key part of the New Economic Initiative, an ambitious plan devised by government, industry and municipal leaders to bring the state to the forefront of technological innovation.

Historically, Arizona’s economy relied on the five Cs – cotton, livestock, citrus, climate, and copper – plus growth and tourism.

To thrive, the 21st century needs more. Technology is changing rapidly, but ASU’s status as a research university means faculty work at the cutting edge of technology.

ASU has already launched two of the Science and Technology Centers, or STCs. One is the STC MADE (Manufacturing, Automation and Data Engineering); read about it here.

And the other – the STC AMPED (Advanced Materials, Processes and Energy Devices) – focuses on the three key components needed to electrify the entire energy sector, from automotive to the electrical grid: the photovoltaics (solar), batteries and power electronics.

AMPED is led by Zach Holman, associate professor at the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering. The center is located in ASU’s research park in Tempe.

These three components are needed on a considerably larger scale than what is currently available, and with much more flexibility and capacity. AMPED works on materials, converts them into devices, and then uses those systems in products.

New Economy Initiative Video: Science and Technology Centers: Arizona State University (ASU)

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

At the research park, the heavy installations and equipment for working there are available. The solar manufacturing laboratory is complemented by new battery manufacturing and testing facilities and new semiconductor tool sets to stimulate power electronics research.

Using these labs and tools, researchers will work on things like switches to charge an electric vehicle (or discharge one) or convert direct current generated by solar power to alternating current used in the grid. How to generate more energy per area for a solar panel? Efficiency is a key cost driver for the cost of solar power (and an important metric by which manufacturers compete).

As Elon Musk famously said, “batteries suck”. How to store more energy per battery? Energy is not the only problem. How fast can you charge or discharge the battery? Acceleration in an electric car does not depend on the amount of energy stored in the batteries.

“How fast can you vent the energy?” says Holman.

It is a challenge that lies at the level of materials, their arrangement and their articulation.

Batteries are a big reason why renewables aren’t quite what they could be. How many batteries would be needed to charge all day and then power the city of Phoenix overnight? How about powering a place that gets very little sun in the winter and recharging batteries in the summer?

“Think about the size of battery needed for a vehicle,” Holman said. “And then you start asking, what would I need to power a city for hours, let alone weeks? And that’s huge.

Two disadvantages of batteries are energy density and power. How far can your electric car travel on a single charge? It is the energy density. How long does he support it? It is power. No one wants to go on a road trip and spend two hours waiting for the car to charge.

Solving these puzzles is the job of this new center.

So how do science and technology centers work? How do they work with companies?

It begins by funding collaborative research projects with companies. Twice a year, the JTS organizes a day of proposals. ASU faculty and industry people come together and define both the state of the art, the gaps, and the needs. What are the pressing issues in the areas of solar batteries and power electronics? (On the last proposal day in February, about 170 people showed up.)

STC directors and project leaders, who are the faculty responsible for batteries and automotive electronics concentrations within STCs, write a funding opportunity announcement. That said, any team that has an ASU Principal Investigator and a company that has agreed to co-invest in a project is eligible for STC funding and can apply with a proposal at the announcement. These are then reviewed by a panel of ASU and industry representatives, and projects will be selected for funding. These will be one to two year projects. It doesn’t even have to be a member of the engineering faculty.

This could be someone from business school working on the critical supply chain for battery materials, for example, as long as they have a company that has agreed to co-invest in the project.

“We need a buy-in commitment from businesses,” Holman said. “And on the other hand, companies have access to bright ASU minds, to a potential workforce of students who could become future employees, with the STC covering much of the cost of associated research and projects. that interest them.”

Companies can also invest in state-of-the-art infrastructure that allows working inside and outside of these projects. Holman said the center brings new driver tools relevant to power electronics. These go into basic installations with funding from STC.

“They can bring new research capabilities to these priority areas because good research is done with good tools and often unique research is done with unique tools,” he said. “So that’s another thing we invest in is capital equipment.”

The center’s third investment is in education workforce development. This happens in several ways. One is hands-on lab training in certain areas.

“A good example of this is a program we call Solar Cells 101,” Holman said. “It’s a week in the lab, to learn how to do each step in the manufacture of solar cells — module, fabrication and characterization. This program has been running since before the STCs, and as inspiration we will expand it into additional areas like batteries and power electronics. With funding from STC, we’ve had companies that every new employee they hire, they send to ASU to take this startup course before they start in the company.

High school students, researchers from other universities and national laboratories, as well as people from small and large companies have all taken the course. Federal employees who are program managers attend the course to better understand the people they fund and support.

Another part of workforce development is supporting students through what are known as impact engineering scholarships. These are scholarships for graduate students to go and spend time in a company or other organization doing something that is beyond the scope of their regular research as a graduate student, but related, which extends the impact of this research. The center funds this.

It is different from a classic internship because an internship would be paid for the company on a project for the company. This may be a semester or summer project set by the graduate student, their advisor, and the company in conjunction with that student’s research, but may involve the use of facilities at ‘a company.

A final part of the workforce development element is entrepreneurial scholarships for students and postdocs who are building new ventures and new ventures based on STC research.

“We have a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem at the university,” Holman said. “So there is funding to support companies launched on the basis of STC innovation. These are all the things the STC does with state money to create the new economy.

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Top illustration by Alex Davis/ASU