Apr 26

When I lived in Louisiana, one of my greatest comfort foods was gumbo. This iconic creole dish was—and still is today—a favorite. From the components of the traditional roux to the complexities of spices, there’s an art in its creation. It’s an art that I’ve come to appreciate over the years as I have spent hours talking about how to make the perfect roux with friends from New Orleans and the perfect gumbo recipe. As I sat down to enjoy a bowl of this deliciousness the other day, I pulled up the Wall Street Journal Obituaries and found myself relating to scientist and researcher, John Palmour. Though it wasn’t gumbo that Dr. Palmour was concocting. No. Rather, he was changing up the recipe for chips…and I’m not talking about the crunchy kind you find in a Lay’s bag. 

Microchips; that’s what Dr. Palmour was best known for. But not just any microchip. Dr. Palmour created a new recipe for making semiconductors, revolutionizing the way in which silicon carbide is used in place of pure silicon. An alumni and researcher at NC State, Dr. Palmour took a chance on an unproven way to make semiconductors, substituting silicon carbide for the usual pure silicon. 

“Silicon carbide had long been seen as a promising chip material, especially in applications involving lots of power and heat,” said the article. “The rub was that it was hard to avoid defects in the tricky process of growing silicon carbide crystals. Because the material is extremely hard, it also was difficult to slice into the required sizes.”

According to Dr. Palmour, “Silicon carbide makes sense. Whenever you need to, you can pull energy out of a battery or out of the wall and convert it to make it useful for whatever the application is.” 

But when he pitched silicon carbide in those days, Dr. Palmour said, “the general reaction was, ‘Yeah, come back and talk to us when it’s the same price as silicon.'” Dr. Palmour argued that the potential savings from more-efficient devices more than justified the higher price. “Once you finally get those first couple of people, everybody else wakes up and starts to follow suit,” he said. “Getting those first early adopters is the hard part.”

Dr. Palmour was among the co-founders of Cree Research, which is now known as Wolfspeed Inc. If you follow the market, you might have heard of their 54% increase in revenue for the fiscal first quarter of 2022 that was $241.3 million. He and fellow NC State graduates created this Durham-based LED lighting company in 1988. It focuses on the design and manufacturing of silicon carbide and its adoption across many applications and industries.

Referred to as a leader with intelligence, humor, integrity, and passion, Dr. Palmour made immeasurable contributions to the world of science that will be felt for generations to come. He was the youngest of three children, was born in Raleigh on Oct. 14, 1960. His father, Hayne Palmour III, was a professor of ceramic engineering at NC State. His mother, Barbara Grace Palmour, later taught kindergarten.

As I finished up my bowl of gumbo, I couldn’t help but think how fun it would be to share a bowl with Dr. Palmour and hear stories of his perseverance to make something happen that so many doubted him for—a characteristic of a true innovator. We could compare stories of how a new recipe can be wide-reaching for generations to come. Now wouldn’t that be a story to tell my students!

Dearly Departed profiles are the musings of SC Innovates’ Director and SmartState Endowed Chair Laura B. Cardinal.  Cardinal is an academic researcher and teaches Strategic Management of Technology and Innovation the University of South Carolina (USC) Darla Moore School of Business Professional MBA program. Her series of courses includes the Strategic Innovation Certificate. Cardinal’s courses offer a unique fusion of innovation, business strategy, science, and technology.