Photo: NASA/Jordan Salkin
Philip Neudeck, the recipient of the 2019 IEEE-USA Harry Diamond Award, wants you to know that although the prestigious recognition is presented to individuals, he’s really just “the talking head, standing on the shoulders of a fantastic team.”
But Neudeck’s professional colleagues and admirers in the white-hot world of silicon carbide (SiC) semiconductor R&D technology will quickly set you straight about how deserving he is. IEEE-USA’s Harry Diamond Award honors members who have made significant contributions to electrotechnology, while in U.S. government service.
According to A. Matt Francis, president and CEO of Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc., Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Neudeck’s nominator: “Phil has made a tremendous impact on the semiconductor industry, and his work is part of the bedrock of silicon carbide semiconductors as we know them today.”
Carl-Mikael Zetterling, a professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, has known Neudeck and his work for years. One of his endorsers for the award, Zetterling says, “He (Neudeck) has strived to explain SiC improvements from a physical basis, leading to greater understanding and further improvements by other researchers… with an openness to sharing results in international journals and conferences.”
It is no exaggeration to describe this modest, self-effacing IEEE Senior Member as close to a living legend in his field. Since joining the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1992, he has championed SiC; and he has blazed a trail toward realizing massive improvements for the commercialization of high-temperature, or high-power operation in aeronautics and space. Widely acknowledged as a leading evangelist for SiC technology and its transfer to commercial applications, Neudeck has co-invented 15 United States patents on the SiC electronics and crystal growth technology now regularly licensed to U.S. businesses. He also is lead author of seven invited book chapters and six invited talks on SiC electronics technology; is a reviewer for many scholarly manuscripts, funding proposals and graduate theses; and he regularly participates in SiC conferences, symposia and program committees.
NASA, by Choice
Neudeck is the lead semiconductor electronic device engineer in the Silicon Carbide Electronics and Sensors research group, at the NASA John H. Glenn Research Center, at Lewis Field, in Cleveland. By choice, it’s the only place he’s ever worked.
“After getting my Master’s and Ph.D. from Purdue University, I was looking for a place that combined research with encouraging cutting-edge technology,” he says. “I was trying to expand a better understanding of silicone carbide, along with being able to control my destiny and contribute to the public good.”
Despite receiving financially tempting offers from large companies, he recalls feeling the corporate environment would make him into “one gear in a big machine.”
He says that while the salary was less at NASA Glenn, it also was clear he would have much more freedom in his work, plus the opportunity to contribute to an emerging field.
Since the start of his NASA career, Neudeck’s focus has been silicon carbide, a hybrid of silicon and carbon. SiC has a bigger bandgap than silicon, so its electrons can absorb much more energy before it becomes a conductor. As a result, SiC functions as a semiconductor at much higher temperatures. But despite major challenges, he was fascinated by high-temperature electronics. He and his colleagues set out to turn the material into computer circuits, with a focus on placing sensors inside jet engines.
Driving Technology Transfer
Today, Neudeck’s responsibility encompasses overseeing the design, modeling, fabrication and electrical characterization of a wide range of prototype SiC electronic devices, that engineers are creating for high-temperature research and development, into new SiC crystal growth. The pioneering work of the team he leads at NASA Glenn has driven technology transfer—not only in aerospace, but also in geothermal exploration and the automotive industry—where SiC power devices are projected to become a $1-billion market by 2022.
But the show-stopping applications for the high-temperature SiC transistors and integrated circuits are their potential uses in space exploration—more specifically, the hellish planet of Venus.
“Venus is Earth’s closest neighbor, and it’s easier to get to than Mars,” explains Neudeck. “If we could understand more about Venus, as well as how and why it didn’t make it as a human-inhabited planet, we could get some very worthwhile insights.”
However, NASA has not sent a mission there since 1989; and the planet’s thick, sulfur clouds stymied more recent European and Japanese orbiters. So, for the past decade, Neudeck and his team at NASA Glenn have been developing and testing circuits that can withstand both thousands of hours at 500°C. (that’s 932° F.) and months of operation in the harsh Venusian environment. They are the only known circuits that, if used in a lander, would permit learning more about the planet.
To test the circuits, the SiC Research group uses what it calls “the Venus chamber”—a 14-ton, stainless steel tank—its huge ports sealed to hold pressures so high the screws to secure its nuts have their own nuts. Officially named the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER), it can run nonstop for more than a month, simulating an atmosphere of 460°C.; flooded with carbon dioxide, both liquid and gas. During tests, several of Neudeck’s microchips inside the tank pulse accurately throughout the trial period.
Robots on Venus?
By early in the next decade, it is possible that NASA could land simple, unprotected robots on Venus to measure wind, temperature and chemistry, among other properties. And instead of running for a few hours, the landers could last for months.
“Before our company began considering the technology he had developed for license, Phil Neudeck’s reputation preceded him,” says IEEE Senior Member Matt Francis. “What most impressed our team was his hands-on approach working with our business, to transfer the technology into commercial production. His involvement speaks volumes about this government scientist’s passion to move SiC technology from the lab and into practice.”
Kevin Speer, founder of Speer Semiconductor LLC in Bentonville, Arkansas, and an endorser of Neudeck’s nomination, has known him since 2003, when Speer (then an undergraduate), began the first of two summer research internships at NASA Glenn.
“That first summer, while working on Phil’s team, my ambitions began to crystallize—pun intended,” Speer says. “I was inspired by the sophistication of his scientific leadership and approach, and the profound significance of his team’s discoveries and the credibility associated with their results.”
Speer subsequently applied for graduate school at nearby Case Western Reserve University. He was delighted when he received a graduate student research fellowship from NASA with Neudeck as his research sponsor. “Even after the fellowship expired, Phil graciously continued as my research advisor—throughout my successful doctoral dissertation defense,” Speer notes.
“Without question, Phil Neudeck has been the person who has had the most impact on my professional ambitions, my scientific integrity, and my endeavors to serve society by advancing the use of SiC as a semiconductor material.”
As for Matt Francis, he is pleased that through his work on the Region 5 Awards Committee, he became aware of the IEEE-USA Harry Diamond Award. “Philip Neudeck is extremely deserving,” states Francis. “It’s amazing that we have this opportunity to work with someone like him, and learn from everything he has developed.”
Seeking Nominations for 2020 IEEE-USA Awards
IEEE-USA is now accepting nominations for 2020 awards — recognizing excellence, outstanding service and contributions in furtherance of its objectives. The deadline to nominate is 15 September. For a full list of awards and for more information on how to nominate, visit: https://ieeeusa.org/volunteers/awards-recognition/
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.