Two Arkansas small businesses enjoyed remarkable success in competition for NASA Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) Phase I research grants, winning three grants. All three grants are targeted at development of high temperature electronics. The Phase I grants, ranging from $70,000 to $100,000, fund exploratory work with the opportunity to compete for a follow-on Phase II grant for as much as $750,000.
Who needs high temperature electronics? The obvious answers are space exploration missions to Mars and Venus, for example, where the systems must tolerate high temperatures. In addition, such electronics are required in deep holes, where the temperature rises rapidly as the earth’s molten core is approached. But there are emerging applications right here on the surface of the earth, where thermal loads having heat fluxes are found in many military and commercial applications. For instance, many vehicles are progressively moving towards hybrid engines, augmenting gasoline engines with electric engines. To maximize efficiency, these engines require full electronic control over quite high power levels - often handling as much as 5 - 10 Kilowatts.
Handling these high power levels causes significant heating of the control electronics. But, a typical silicon transistor or integrated circuit stops operating above about 150 centigrade. When using silicon control elements, cooling must be provided by massive heat sinks or by recirculating a coolant past the element. These solutions add significant cost, weight and volume.
The appeal of SiC electronics is that the heat sinks and coolant systems can be largely eliminated, allowing the electronics to simply operate at 300 centigrade or higher. Once SiC electronics become readily available, we will find them in almost every system that handles a good deal of power. In another approach to minimizing coolant systems for electronics, specially-designed coolants may be sprayed onto the electronics. As coolant droplets evaporates, heat is carried away. The droplets can then be condensed elsewhere and recirculated. Together, the University of Arkansas and several small businesses working in the region are beginning to earn recognition as a “center of excellence” in high temperature electronics.
Arkansas Power Electronics Inc. (APEI)., majority owned by Dr. Alex Lostetter, is developing high temperature electronics based on Silicon Carbide (SiC), a special semiconductor that can potentially operate at temperatures as high as 600 C. But having the basic capability for high temperature is just one step in delivering an electronic system that actually works at elevated temperature. The semiconductor has to be contacted with metals that can also tolerate the full temperature range, and the devices have to be packaged for compatibility. APEI is rapidly becoming a nationally recognized expert in design and fabrication of SiC electronics, and currently has over $3.5M in funded R&D projects.
APEI, currently a GENESIS client, has taken advantage of every assistance program available. Initially, APEI received assistance from the Innovation Incubator on a project to place electronics down-hole in oil exploration. The Incubator provided structured access to University of Arkansas facilities and equipment, and provided a small budget for supplies and materials to get started. Based on this effort, APEI submitted and won an SBIR Phase I grant from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. As APEI competed for a follow-on SBIR Phase II grant, they found that financing was required to bridge their day-to-day operations to the point where the longer term contract could begin. This financing was made available by the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority (ASTA). From this point, APEI has made substantial progress in gaining national attention for their products.
Power Electronics Leveling Solutions (PELS) is the second company to receive a NASA SBIR Phase I grant. PELS is owned by Dr. Juan Balda, E.E. faculty at UAF. Also working in the area of high temperature electronics, PELS is presently focused on development of compact spray cooling assemblies that can be easily applied in applications where SiC or other solutions do not completely solve the problem.
The details on the three grants are as follows:
(1) Grant to APEI titled: “Silicon-Carbide (SiC) Multichip Power Modules (MCPMs) for Power Building Block Applications”, Principal Investigator Alex Lostetter
This SBIR Phase I project seeks to prove the feasibility of developing high power density modular power electronic building blocks based upon high temperature silicon carbide (SiC) multichip power module (MCPM) technologies. The modular approach will allow for auto-configurable stackable modules to be built up in series and/or parallel configurations (through a “plug and play” fashion) in order to increase overall system power handling capabilities. The MCPM building blocks will utilize a decentralized control and communications structure, with a communications network established between the core silicon-on-insulator (SOI) controllers of the MCPMs, but with no single controller in command of the system. The decentralized control scheme will allow for the construction of highly flexible power systems which could perform a wide variety of power electronics applications, including power conversion, motor drive, and power distribution functions.
(2) Grant to APEI titled: “Ultra-Lightweight, High Efficiency Silicon-Carbide (SiC) Based Power Electronic Converters”, Principal Investigator Alex Lostetter
This SBIR Phase I proposal seeks to investigate and prove the feasibility of developing highly efficient, ultra-lightweight SiC semiconductor based power electronic converters for Earth science mission vehicles. With high temperature operation of power electronics components, heat sinking and active cooling thermal management strategies can be significantly downgraded; thus reducing the size, volume, and weight of the overall power electronic systems by as much as an order of magnitude. This would translate directly to savings in space launch costs and in improving vehicle payload capacity.
3) Grant to PELS titled: “Development of Modular Spray-Cooled Assemblies for High Heat Fluxes” Principal Investigator Jeremy Junghans
This SBIR Phase I project will develop modular spray-cooled assemblies that satisfy NASA power and mass budgets and can be scaled to cool multiple heat sources subjected to high heat fluxes and microgravity conditions. Much of the work on spray cooling has been experimental in nature and technological improvements have been the result of extensive experimental work. There is a need for a better theoretical understanding. Power Electronics Leveling Solutions L.L.C. (PELS) analytical team has formulated mathematically the conditions for extracting high heat fluxes from a heated surface in addition to the latent heat of vaporization that takes place in the formation of the bubble under phase change. PELS has now the opportunity of combining its analytical and experimental capabilities to develop modular assemblies based on spray cooling with the goal of achieving heat fluxes in excess of 100 W/cm2 while satisfying power and mass budgets. Potential NASA applications include power amplifiers for transmit/receive, modules, modular microwave integrated circuits, power lasers, and power modules for energy storage; flywheels; battery chargers; peak power trackers; motor drives; and smart solid-state switches. Jeremy Junghans, Dr. Panneer Selvam and Brian Rowden form the main core of the team assembled for this project. Dr. Fred Barlow and Dr. Balda will be supporting this team as necessary. The experimental work will take place at the CEPAL laboratory within the University of Arkansas.
How to Get a Similar Grant for Your Small Business
Do your homework first. Visit the SBIR site(s) at the sponsoring federal agency(ies) first. Understand the type and scope of project they are seeking to fund. Download the agency SBIR grant proposal solicitation for reference while completing your SBIR grant application.
Do as much of the grant proposal development as you can by yourself. No one knows your idea better than yourself. When you get stuck, make an appointment with Mildred Holley, Lead Consultant, at the Arkansas SBDC by calling 501-324-9043. Mildred is a certified technlogy business consultant and provides free confidential one-on-one consulting to Arkansas small businesses applying for SBIR grants. Mildred will expect you to bring a near final draft of your proposal narrative and application forms with you to the appointment.
SBIR grants are not for every small business. But, if your business has the capability to meet federal government needs, then an SBIR grant might be worth the extra effort to submit.