Former GE scientist B. Jayant Baliga received the National Award of Technology and Innovation at a ceremony hosted by President Obama at the White House last Friday. The medal is the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement.
Dr. Baliga received the award for the work he did at GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna, New York, where he invented, developed and helped commercialize the insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT). The IGBT is essentially a power management semiconducting switch that controls the efficient flow of electricity. Dr. Baliga has calculated that IGBT-enabled applications have produced a cumulative reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 35 trillion pounds in the U.S. and 78 trillion pound globally during the last 20 years.
Dr. Baliga spent 15 at the GE Global Research center in New York, from 1974 until 1988. Dr. Baliga told GE Reports that he invented the device during a month-long rush to make a better air conditioner. “GE vice president Tom Brock showed up at the research center and challenged us to come up with a more efficient heat pump,” said Dr. Baliga. He said that he had the idea already germinating in his head and within a month he came up with the invention. When Brock found out that Dr. Baliga’s transistor performed better than ordinary bi-polar transistors, he told GE Chairman Jack Welch, who traveled to Niskayuna for a personal briefing. “Jack Welch got very excited,” Dr. Baliga said. “It was immediately obvious to him that the device had applications to everything, beyond toasters and washing machines.”
Dr. Baliga said that he commercialized the invention within six months and the first air conditioner with his transistor shipped one year after his invention. He filed for a patent in 1980 and has received 20 patents in total in connection with the device.
The device has had a revolutionary impact reaching far beyond toasters. Today, IGBTs are used in many high power applications, including wind turbines, locomotives, the avionics and electrical systems on aircraft and solar inverters for utility scale solar farms.
The Baliga honor highlights GE’s pioneering role in the power management field. Currently, GE researchers are developing next generation transistor technology (silicon carbide MOSFETS) that could supersede IGBTs and enable revolutionary advances in the power conversion efficiency of many electrical product applications. In June, GE Aviation announced a new line of silicon carbide power conversion devices at the recent Paris Air Show.
With GE’s recent acquisition of Converteam, a company specializing in high power conversion components, GE is making a big push in power electronics. With a growing wind and solar business and the company’s more recent entry into the Aviation Systems space, GE’s development and applications of these technologies remains more important than ever.
Dr. Baliga is currently a professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University.