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The ECN Roundtable - Power Predictions for 2011

Wed, 11/24/2010 - 5:03am

This month's ECN Roundtable question is: “What technology or industry design trend do you feel will impact the power industry the most in the coming year?" We had a very strong response, as seen below.

David GermanDavid German, Murata Power Solutions (www.murata.com)   

Actually there are several already significant trends which will continue to influence the power supply industry in 2011.  

The first is the ongoing drive for more efficient products in order to minimise the impact on natural resources. Many suppliers are already meeting the Climate Savers 80 Plus Gold Computing Initiative requirement which demands an efficiency of 92% at 50% load. Here at Murata Power Solutions, we have standard products which are already exceeding the 80 Plus Gold version of the standard (the D1U4CS series at 93% efficiency being a case in point). In fact, our technology is currently half way to the Platinum standard of 94%, so it's safe to say that the trend for increased efficiency will be around for some time to come.    

Increased power density is another trend which is not going away. Semiconductor technology continues to advance at rapid pace which has the dual effect of reducing both the quantity of components on the bill of materials and the size of those components. We expect advances in everything from magnetics to synchronous rectifiers to PBC technology in the next 12 months.    

One trend that we are seeing here at Murata Power Solutions is that we are getting involved with customers earlier in the design process. We are increasingly working with customers at the design conception stage so that we can develop power supply topologies that meet their needs for efficiency and power density. This early stage involvement will help drive us towards and beyond the Climate Savers Platinum standard as mentioned above.    

Finally, the move towards standard products is quite pronounced. Power designers are increasingly interested in standard form factors, such as the 78mm and 54mm width standards adopted by the computing, network and storage industries. We respond by adopting those standard form factors into our product range which make our products applicable to more and more customers in that segment. It means that one standard (or slightly modified) power supply unit will be suitable for multiple customers, a change from how the business has worked in the past.

Dave ValettaDave Valetta, Vishay Intertechnology (www.vishay.com)

Consumers are still looking for smarter, faster, and more compact personal electronics that feature longer and longer run times between battery charges.  Therefore form factors and industry standards will continue to evolve as each electronic device manufacturer answers this demand with their own gadgets to capture a slice of the pie.  In the power arena, designers will continue to look for ways to increase power design efficiency and performance, while integrating even more device functionality and packaging it all up in even sleeker solutions for end products.     

As MOSFETs are a major consumer of the device power budget, not only will designers be looking for the usual lower on-resistance, lower figure of merit (FOM), better thermal performance, and smaller size while facing higher power load requirements, but they will also be looking for innovative solutions that achieve all of these demands at the same time.  In 2011, Vishay expects to offer unique, unprecedented combinations of MOSFET silicon and packaging technologies to give designers cutting-edge solutions to meet these challenges in laptop and fixed telecom applications, while offering leading performance and the smallest-sized solutions for ultra-portable applications such as eBooks, tablet PCs, and smart phones. 

Alex LidowAlex Lidow PhD, Efficient Power Conversion (www.epc-co.com)  

Gallium Nitride has a theoretical performance advantage of more than 1000:1 compared with a silicon-based power MOSFET, and more than 10:1 compared with Silicon Carbide transistors.  Furthermore, GaN devices can be grown on standard silicon wafers and be produced in standard CMOS foundries at costs similar to their MOSFET ancestors. 

Efficient Power Conversion Corporation (EPC) recently introduced GaN transistors designed to directly compete with power MOSFETs in applications ranging from 40V to 200V. 600V product will be introduced soon.   In order to maintain compatibility with mainstream power MOSFETs and IGBTs, EPC developed eGaNTM FET technology to make our transistors enhancement mode (Normally OFF) as opposed to all other commercial GaN products which are depletion mode (Normally ON).   

Customers can take advantage of the eGaN FET’s smaller footprint, faster switching speed, and lower on-resistance to improve system size, efficiency, and cost.  Not since the power MOSFET was launched in 1976 has there been as significant a leap in power conversion device performance.  These eGaN FETs are first generation, but already show performance advantages ranging from 5 to 10 times better than the best power MOSFETs produced today.  Future generation product will widen that performance gap and eventually largely displace power MOSFET and IGBT in all power conversion applications. 

Kevin ParmenterKevin Parmenter, Exar (www.exar.com)   

Power Electronics is once again “cool” the industry has recovered from the race to the bottom of price, price price and are now starting to think of power budgets and a system level approach to power efficiency design.  The “good enough – cheap” approach is taking a back seat to total cost of ownership and meeting mandatory global regulatory requirements, extending battery life in portable products even while adding more features and functionality to remain competitive.     

The large VLSI device companies are starting to release devices – with more on the way, which sense clock speed, die temperature, voltage drop across the die and system performance needs and levels of what is on and what voltages could be reduced for different energy saving modes to prolong battery life, make more efficient systems.   These CPUs and VLSI systems have I2C interfaces to the power supply to intelligently margin, sequence, adjust,  switch on and off different rails as needed to increase efficiency and performance.  This allows running VLSI semiconductors at optimum performance levels per unit of energy – in other words MIPS per watt or system performance per watt.      

This combined with the coming “smart grid” whatever this turns out to be could create products which monitor, communicate and control their own power supply as needed to optimize itself internally yet then report out and be controlled by external influences. There are becoming more “things” on the web than people this opens up possibilities.   

For example a smart appliance which optimizes efficiency internally then waiting in a sleep state until the utility says power is lower cost then turning on to dry the clothes or run the dishwasher.  Or a video game which runs the CPU at peak performance at the same time does not overheat the processor.  Or a server or router which powers down to a lower consumption state until it senses its being used then adjusts memory and processor voltages for the processing load its dealing with and not running at 100% all the time. 

These are truly game changers and will require us as power electronics engineers to learn new skills as we add capabilities to systems.     

Consumers will want to have a “fuel consumption gauge” for their home as well as a web address to monitor and control things they are powering.  We are on the verge of a surge in requests for capabilities to enable this.  When the VLSI device – CPU devices have to have this to work then it won’t be optional and people will use the capabilities to give benefits to their customers.  

Don AlfanoDon Alfano, Silicon Labs (www.silabs.com)  

Boutique or large scale systems aside, most power delivery systems are expected to occupy minimal space, demonstrate exceptional reliability and performance, operate at a high level of efficiency, generate little electromagnetic interference (EMI),  and be available at a very  low price.  Consequently, power designers are tasked with a wide range of continuous (and sometimes conflicting) improvements with each successive system generation.   Although these designers tend to be risk-averse, this environment mandates the fast adoption of new power-related technologies to remain competitive.       

For example:  take the venerable intermediate bus architecture (IBA) commonly used in 48V telecom equipment.  Here, incoming line voltage is converted to dc then down-converted by a dedicated dc/dc bus converter.  The bus converter output feeds multiple (non-isolated) point-of-load converters (POL), each one supporting a dedicated load.  Depending on the end application, a system may contain several bus converters each with multiple POLs resulting in literally dozens of power supplies within the system; all of which cost money, occupy space and burn power.     

A better solution could be the use of fewer, more integrated isolated supplies that eliminate the both bus converters and POLs.  So why isn’t this architecture more pervasive?  Answer: because isolated converters are said to be larger, more expensive, and less efficient than non-isolated converters.  Nonsense!   The availability of advanced digital power control, the advent of high performance CMOS isolation technology and use of existing planar transformer technology can combine to create a smaller, superior solution than IBA for many end applications, and at a lower cost.    In the coming year, we will see faster adoption of these and other power-related technologies that drive smaller, more reliable, higher performance and cost-effective power delivery solutions.  

BurgerBrett Burger, National Instruments (www.ni.com)   

With several major automotive companies releasing plug-in electric vehicles in the coming months the power industry is going to be faced with millions of commuters coming home at 6PM and plugging in battery stacks designed to run 80 kW motors.  Ruling out a ban on EVs by your local utility provider, the power industry is faced with two options: build more infrastructure to efficiently support the new peak demand, or design a system to use existing generation and transmission capitol more efficiently.  The latter is the notion of a smart grid.  

Smart grid development is bringing measurement, analysis, and control technology to our existing power distribution system.  Nodes that can monitor and report real time power data need to be installed at a lower level on the grid.  Advanced control systems need to be better equipped to detect and respond to faults and overload conditions with less frequent need for human intervention.     

Large loads, such as the charging of EV batteries, need to be “smart” so that they only charge when there is a lull in electricity usage. 

Electric vehicles, where available, are going to force the issue of a smart grid.  The impact to the power industry will be proportional to EV popularity which, based on waiting lists for earlier models, may be fairly high.  

Vipin BothraVipin Bothra, STMicroelectronics (www.st.com) 

In the near term, there does not seem to be a single major driver in the power industry - rather, there are many. On the product side, development of new products based on newer materials such as SiC and GaN have generated a lot of excitement in the design arena. SiC has been around for many years and is extensively used in high voltage diodes and LEDs. However, the number of products out there based on SiC shows it is still in its infancy.    

I expect that in the coming year, there would be a significantly bigger line up of high voltage diodes in terms of voltage and current ratings and package choices. Power MOSFETS based on SiC for general purpose application are currently in the works. If and when SiC MOSFETS become industrialized, they will generate huge interest because of their extremely fast switching speed.  

Chargers for portable electronics are commodity products; however their large volumes still generate a lot of interest. 50 mW of standby power when no load is connected is a thing of the past.    

The designers of new generation of chargers are now looking at ways of detecting a full charge of the device and reducing the input power to zero, whereby zero power is defined as any input power that is below 5mW. Another new driver for IC development for charger applications is the elimination of secondary regulation. ALTAIR05T-800 is one such part from STMicroelectronics in this newly emerging field.   

Apart from development in ICs and semiconductor materials, the second and most important driver for power conversion industry is the phenomenal growth in Smart Grid, Wireless Power, and LED lighting applications. Smart Grid is driving new ways to measure power and to give users control in their usage of power. Wireless Power is going after consumers with fast paced lives who are looking for the extra convenience of not having to connect their cell phone to a charger. LED lighting application is reaching new price points for consumers who are looking for a way to get rid of the lower quality of light from CFLs. 

John DoddsJohn Dodds, FCI (www.fci.com)   

System designers will need to increase overall power efficiency while maintaining or even increasing system functionality. At the connector level, this translates into power products that can handle higher power requirements, offer reduced losses due to contact resistance, and facilitate additional airflow.   

These increased performance demands apply across various market segments – including  data, telecom and datcom/networking– and are driving component manufacturers toward significant advances in product technology.  Equipment form factors are becoming more compact, such as the denser blade form factor replacing rack-mount servers in data centers.  Consequently, greater power (and signal) density is needed to accommodate these more compact systems.     

Power connector technology is evolving to meet these trends as connector manufacturers provide products with lower contact resistance and maximized linear current density in more compact, lower-profile packages.  For example, current carrying efficiency, linear current density, product profile heights and airflow above, below and through the power connector are key design criteria.  In addition to compactness, power connectors must also offer improved milli-volt drop performance to help system designers achieve better power efficiency.    

To satisfy these system power requirements, connector manufacturers have responded with next generation power products that benchmark standard stamped-and-formed power contact technology.  This technology combines high power density with cost effectiveness versus expensive screw-machine contacts for high-current applications.  In addition, high conductivity copper alloy materials, optimized power contact designs and housing ventilation in strategic areas help next-generation products meet and exceed the demands of higher efficiency and higher power applications. 

Keith HopwoodKeith Hopwood, Phihong (www.phihong.com)   

The one factor that will have the most impact on the power industry in the coming year is the demand for renewable energy, specifically the demand for solar inverters to convert the solar-cell generated electricity back onto the line. It’s the single biggest trend in the power industry in the last few years. There are companies that have been on the brink of going out of business that have transformed into boom companies because of the solar inverter market.    

This is still not a major sales growth area in the United States, but it is in Canada. The market is being drive by energy costs and rebates and in the U.S., it may not yet pay for a homeowner to spend $40,000 to install a solar energy system if he is only paying $100 a month in energy costs, while in Europe the cost of energy is so high that home- and business-owners are more likely to realize significant benefits. In Canada, the government offers  taxpayers significant incentives to install these systems. For example, in Ontario, the government pays 50 percent of the installation cost as a tax break. Also, Ontarians buy energy as low as $0.04 per kWh and can sell it back at about $0.08 per kWh.   

Manufacturing solar inverters is already a major focus for suppliers located in the United States, but their biggest markets for these products are in Canada and Europe, not here. In the last year alone solar inverter manufacturers have more than doubled their business. The U.S. market for consuming solar inverters hasn’t really taken off yet because unless consumers live in an area where energy costs are extremely high, the payback period for installing a solar system is too long for it to be a viable solution on a wide scale; but the prices of solar cells are coming down, and as they do, the payback period will become more attractive to more people. 

Patrick LeFevrePatrick LeFevre, Ericsson (www.ericsson.com)   

As we move into 2011, digital power control is going to be adopted more widely as the benefits become more clearly defined and understood. The first generation of digital power modules, launched just a few years ago, attracted a handful of early-adopters to the technology. Most people understood the flexibility that point-of-load control and monitoring could deliver.    

At the same time, both point-of-load converters and bus converters were reaching new heights of efficiency. However, as in the case of analog power conversion, peak efficiency was only attained at relatively high loads and in the real world, many systems, for example those in data centers, operate at just 20% of maximum out for perhaps 80% of the time. Under these circumstances, DC-DC converter efficiency suffers, bringing down overall system efficiency.  

The new generation of point-of-load converters tackles this problem by taking control of the intermediate bus voltage and varying this dynamically to maximize efficiency under differing loads. The result is an overall power system that’s capable of more than 90% efficiency at just 10% load. No analog power system comes close. And it’s not just CO2 emissions that are reduced: so are system size, complexity and cooling requirements.

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