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John Deere Joins $200 Million Push For Next-Generation Electronics


The iconic U.S. firm Deere & Company (more familiarly known as John Deere) has been emerging as a player in the U.S. agriculture industry's transition to clean technology, and it looks like the company is going to be venturing way off the farm on its next endeavor. John Deere has just been named as one of 18 private sector partners in the new public-private Manufacturing Innovation Institute, launched just yesterday as part of President Obama's initiatives to boost the U.S. manufacturing sector into next-generation technologies.

The companies will partner with an academic team spearheaded by North Carolina State University in a $70 million effort that also draws in five federal agencies as part of a larger, $200 million initiative establishing a total of three such innovation hubs, announced earlier this year. Along with NASA and the National Science Foundation, the partnership includes the departments of Commerce, Defense and Energy.

At stake is a competitive chunk at the huge potential global market for next-generation electronic chips and related devices that achieve significant gains in both power and energy efficiency.

A Boost For U.S. Manufacturers

The focus of the Manufacturing Innovation Institute will be on developing the next generation of wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors.

Bandgap refers to a range in which no electron states can exist in a particular material, which makes it a major factor in the conductivity of the material. WBG technology offers a significant improvement over conventional silicon semiconductors in terms of energy consumption and performance.

This is how excited the Department of Energy is about WBG technology:

WBG semiconductors are a foundational technology that promises to transform multiple industries and markets. Low- cost, high-performance power electronics are expected to become integral to everything from household appliances and consumer goods to military systems, vehicles, and a modernized grid that incorporates renewable energy.

….The ability to design and manufacture innovative WBG-enabled devices cost effectively will create a strong foundation of domestic materials technology expertise and give U.S. manufacturers early entry and, therefore, a competitive edge in key global markets. Extensive use of these devices will save U.S. businesses and consumers billions of dollars in energy costs.

Instead of silicon, WBG semiconductors are based on materials like silicon carbide and gallium nitride. They are more durable and reliable over a wider range of voltages and frequencies, and they can withstand higher temperatures.

As for what difference that will make, the Energy Department cites the example of a typical laptop power adapter. With WBG semiconductors, the adapter of the future would be about one-fifth the size and reduce energy consumption by 20 percent, almost eliminating loss of power as waste heat.

The difference is even more dramatic when it comes to larger devices, namely plug-in electric vehicles. According to the Department of Energy, WBG semiconductors could shrink the energy use of a fast-charging station down to the size of a household microwave oven, in addition to offering significant efficiency improvements in the vehicle's cooling system.

Before WBG semiconductors become an industry standard, though, three obstacles need to be addressed: the cost of manufacturing them needs to be reduced, devices need to be redesigned to accommodate them, and systems must be redesigned to accommodate those devices.

A Public-Private Partnership

Joining John Deere in the Manufacturing Innovation Institute are private sector partners ABB, APEI, Avogy, Cree, Delphi, Delta Products, DfR Solutions, Gridbridge, Hesse Mechantronics, II-VI, IQE, Monolith Semiconductor, RF Micro Devices, Toshiba International, Transphorm, USCi, and Vacon.

If you're still wondering how John Deere fits into that group, take a look at the company's high tech electric tractor and you'll see.

Aside from NCSU, the academic and research partners include the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the US Naval Research Laboratory, as well as Arizona State University, Florida State University, University of California at Santa Barbara and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Image: John Deere logo by Charles & Hudson

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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