Smarter, faster and smaller power grids: a step towards a green economy

- Ottawa, Ontario

With a set target to reach zero net emissions by 2050, the Government of Canada is implementing numerous programs and funding initiatives, including setting a mandatory target for all new light-duty cars and passenger trucks sales to be zero-emission by 2035 and shifting towards transportation electrification.

Electric vehicles will go a long way to help. The backbone behind the safe and reliable operation of electric vehicles are electronic power modules. These consist mostly of interconnected semiconductor devices that convert various forms of energy into usable power. At the heart of these modules is an insulation system that must withstand electrical, thermal and mechanical stresses. All this while still aiming to achieve more compact power module designs! But how can this be achieved?

That's where the NRC Metrology Research Centre's Electrical Power Measurements team comes in. They are gearing up to build a testing hub for next-generation power electronic modules. This will provide manufacturers of semiconductors with reliable data to develop advanced power modules for smart grids and electric transportation.

The green economy shift

As the world continues to take steps towards a greener future, so is the composition of electrical grids. Smarter, faster and smaller than ever, they are under even greater pressure to perform in this greening environment. They must continue to reliably convert renewable energy from unlimited sources such as sun, wind and waves into electricity that runs households and businesses – and drives the propulsion systems of electric vehicles.

This green economy shift is demanding smaller and more compact modules capable of handling rising voltages. Such conditions amplify electric stress and create a partial discharge deteriorating the electrical insulation system of the module, thereby threatening the module's reliable operation. Any operational failure within these power modules may spread to the converter and affect the performance of electric vehicles – or an entire grid.

"Stringent miniaturization requirements of the power module design and increased interest in having it deliver higher-power density constitute major challenges," says Dr. Refat Ghunem, Team Leader, Electrical Power Measurements at the NRC. Partial discharge testing under realistic conditions is key to managing this issue, but today's lab tests fall short. They use power frequency sinusoidal voltage that does not simulate the repetitively impulsive voltage that modules encounter during operation.

"Our longstanding expertise in high-precision electrical power measurement helped us uncover and address these new measurement challenges," says Dr. Ghunem. "Our planned testing hub can help manufacturers of semiconductors design and manufacture power modules that withstand high-voltage rates or have a good partial discharge performance."

Bridging the power gap

Dr. Ghunem points out that the planned partial discharge evaluation facility will bridge a gap in the industry. It will provide an environment that emulates actual conditions, and become a reliable testing ground for evaluating the reliability of next-generation power electronic modules.

"We are experts in high-voltage and electrical power measurements," he says. "But to help us develop this complex R&D capability, we hope to collaborate with specialists in related disciplines." Some potential partners that come to mind include artificial intelligence diagnosticians, manufacturers of electric converters, power-grid managers and transportation operators.

Training highly qualified personnel is another important aspect of this initiative. Among the staff gaining hands-on experience with Dr. Ghunem in this rare specialty are postdoctoral fellows and recent PhD graduates.

The Government of Canada has begun modernizing electrical infrastructure, prioritizing innovation in electrical grids and striving to build a smart grid, and NRC is developing expertise in this area.

Stay tuned to learn more about this research and how the Metrology Research Centre will create smarter, faster and smaller power grids to help create a green economy.

Contact us

For more information, or to express your interest in joining this project, please contact
Dr. Refat Ghunem
Telephone: 613-990-4021