This summer I worked on the design of a millisecond pulse generator as part of the ARPA-E GAMOW grant. The goal of this project was to supply pulses of very high current to a fusion reactor’s plasma control antenna using solid-state power electronics. Some key design considerations were the ability to parallelize the pulse generator to scale to many power levels, to operate at high voltages, and to minimize the current rise time through the load antenna. I spent most of my time working in LTspice XVII to simulate the circuit and its response to rapid pulses of current. I wanted to make sure the circuit performed as desired, while also remaining safe for both the devices in the circuit and the operators controlling the circuit.
We based the design of the circuit on a load switch developed previously at Princeton Satellite Systems by Cindy Li and Eric Ham. Our biggest progress was in the selection of switching devices and the improvement of the gate drive circuitry. Because our goal is to switch current as quickly as possible, we did not want to rely on outdated klystrons as our switches. We decided to use many parallel MOSFETs to switch the current. The device we chose was a 650 V silicon carbide cascode JFET from UnitedSiC. This FET has low on-state resistance, meaning that it does not heat up as much when pulling large amounts of current. By using many devices in parallel, we can pull more total current while keeping each individual FET below its current capacity. Then by using multiple boards in parallel, we can reach different power levels for different fusion reactors.
Implementing safe gate driver circuitry was another important step. The power MOSFETs used to switch the current cannot be turned on directly from a computer control signal, due to both power and safety concerns. A logic-level signal is not powerful enough to activate the FET, and directly connecting the computer to the high-voltage circuitry is unsafe. To solve both problems, I designed a galvanically-isolated gate drive circuit based on an Infineon gate driving IC. The intermediate circuit takes the computer control signal and steps it up to an intermediate voltage level high enough to activate the MOSFET, while keeping the both sections electrically isolated from each other. Each MOSFET has its own gate drive circuit, enabling independent control.
Working on the millisecond pulse generator was a great experience as an intern. I gained lots of practice working with team members across organizations and disciplines. I became much more proficient in LTspice, and I learned how to rigorously approach challenging engineering problems.