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Generous Gift From Wolfspeed Extends Palmour Legacy in College of Engineering

a photo of Wolf Plaza by Becky Kirkland

John Palmour was an engineer, a scientist, an innovator and an entrepreneur.

He also was a devoted alumnus of NC State.

A new gift from Wolfspeed — the prominent Triangle-based technology company Palmour co-founded with five others — will honor those characteristics while investing in future leaders and discoveries and adding to the Palmour family’s legacy of philanthropy at the university.

The gift is establishing the John Palmour Distinguished Professorship in Materials Science and Engineering as well as the Wolfspeed Endowed Scholarship in Memory of Dr. John Palmour. The scholarship will provide need-based support for undergraduates in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, where Palmour earned his bachelor’s degree (1982) and Ph.D. (1988).

Gregg A. Lowe, president and CEO of Wolfspeed, made the announcement Sunday during a celebration of Palmour’s life held at Reynolds Coliseum. Palmour, who passed away at age 62 in November, was the firm’s chief technology officer at the time of his death.

John Palmour
John Palmour

Wolfspeed’s large manufacturing facility under construction in Chatham County will be named the John Palmour Manufacturing Center for Silicon Carbide, Lowe also announced Sunday. The facility will be the world’s largest producer of silicon carbide.

Palmour and his wife, Nancy, a 1985 alumna of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, had previously established the Palmour Family College of Engineering Fellowship Endowment and the Palmour Family Extraordinary Opportunity Scholarship Endowment for engineering students. They also have been generous supporters of the University’s Greatest Needs Fund and the Wolfpack Club’s Student-Athlete ImPack Program.

Many family members, friends and colleagues have made gifts to those funds in Palmour’s memory.

“John was a brilliant engineer, entrepreneur and businessman and a true Wolfpacker who always supported NC State.” — Louis A. Martin-Vega, dean of the College of Engineering

“John was a brilliant engineer, entrepreneur and businessman and a true Wolfpacker who always supported NC State,” said Louis A. Martin-Vega, dean of the College of Engineering. “A member of the National Academy of Engineering, he was a distinguished alumnus of our college, and we were so proud of what he and fellow alumni achieved with Cree and Wolfspeed. This generous gift will serve to enhance his outstanding legacy and will be a true blessing to the faculty and students in his home department.”

Palmour was a strong advocate for research collaborations between industry, faculty members and students. He played a key role in helping bring the PowerAmerica research center to NC State, served two terms on the university’s Board of Visitors and participated in activities such as a recent panel discussion about the College of Engineering’s role in driving the state’s economy, held at James B. Hunt Jr. Library.     

Palmour was named a Distinguished Engineering Alumnus by the College of Engineering in 2009. In 2015, he was elected to the inaugural class of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s Hall of Fame, along with his late father, Hayne Palmour III, a 37-year professor of ceramic engineering at the university and an NC State alumnus himself.

Five of the six founders of Wolfspeed, formerly Cree, attended NC State. The firm currently employs about 2,500 people in the Triangle, and the new Siler City Silicon Carbide production facility is expected to add about 1,800 jobs. 

A native of Raleigh and graduate of Broughton High School, Palmour developed a passion for his discipline at NC State. He also developed a love for Wolfpack athletics (including the 1983 men’s basketball team) and met Nancy; the couple has three children, Christopher, Rachel and Ethan.

Palmour’s career included 142 patents and 386 scientific publications. His National Academy of Engineering induction came in October.

During his graduate studies, Palmour and his research team devised a method for synthesizing the semiconductor silicon carbide in a lab. In 1987, Palmour, Neal Hunter, Thomas Coleman, John Edmond, Calvin Carter and Eric Hunter, five of them NC State alumni, launched Durham-based Cree.

A pioneer of the transition from silicon to silicon carbide, the company was soon the first to successfully commercialize the latter, enabling full-color LED display technology. It championed adoption across applications and industries, focusing on designing and supplying the industry’s highest-performing silicon carbide and gallium nitride-on-silicon-carbide materials and devices for high-power applications. Wolfspeed is now helping advance the efficiency and performance of electric vehicles (EVs) and other applications like renewable energy and storage. Announced in September, its new facility in Siler City will focus on producing silicon carbide, which is then turned into the chips used in EVs.

“John is truly the godfather of silicon carbide and the champion behind what is now a global and groundbreaking transition from silicon to silicon carbide. We are honored to support his legacy at NC State University, where it all started,” said Lowe.

PowerAmerica, the Department of Energy-funded institute headquartered on Centennial Campus, is similarly aimed at addressing the challenges of making electric vehicles more commercially viable and affordable at a time of increased driver interest.