Electricity is part of virtually everything we do in modern society. From our energy grids to our smartphones and even our vehicles, electricity is what makes it all run. In a world where demand for electricity is higher than ever (and rapidly growing), energy efficiency is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Whether environmentalists who want to protect the planet or businesspeople looking to cut expenses, finding new ways to improve the efficiency of our systems and generate renewable energy is a key focus for all.
Sometimes these big developments come in small packages, and when it comes to electrical systems the components might be tiny but their impacts on efficiency can be big. That’s certainly the case with semiconductor devices, which are critical components in pretty much any electrical system you can think of, from those in your home that power your appliances to massive wind farms generating renewable energy.
How semiconductor devices work
Semiconductor devices are used in electrical circuits as components that partially conduct electricity. These devices are made of semiconductors like silicon crystals, which exhibit the natural properties of both conductors and insulators; conductors are substances that enable the free flow of electrons from particle to particle, while insulators do not.
Semiconductors allow electrons to partially flow from particle to particle, but because of their insulator properties, these electrons usually require an extra push to flow freely. That push comes in the form of voltage; when voltage is applied, the electrons flow throughout the circuit, resulting in electricity.
Semiconductor devices, then, allow the free flow of electrons through a circuit when a certain voltage is applied, as well as closing a circuit to prevent the flow of electricity. This makes them useful in on/off switches or as automatic protection in the event of a surge to protect downstream components and reduce the risk of overheating.
Semiconductor device use cases
Semiconductor devices are essential to virtually any system that relies on electricity, from your coffee maker to a space shuttle. A quick overview of several semiconductor device use cases makes clear just how versatile these components can be.
- Household circuit breaker box
- Electric vehicles and electric vehicle charging
- Renewable energy production and storage
- Military equipment and vehicles
- Laptops, smartphones, and mobile devices
- Televisions and computer monitors
- Industrial manufacturing plants
- HVAC systems
- Video game consoles
- Household appliances
To learn more about innovations in semiconductor devices and the big impacts these small components could have on two of these use cases – electric vehicles and renewable energy – I sat down with Dan Brdar, CEO of Ideal Power. Ideal Power has developed a bipolar, bidirectional junction transistor (B-TRANTM) semiconductor device.
Q: How do semiconductor devices work with electric vehicles and renewable energy?
A: Electric vehicles and renewable energy installations have energy losses due to inefficiencies that directly translate to higher costs. The efficiency of both applications will continue to improve over time, and part of how that will happen is with improved semiconductor devices.
As electric vehicle technologies mature, we’ll see improved batteries, semiconductors, and vehicle manufacturing techniques that will drive higher performance, greater vehicle range, and lower cost. Semiconductors are the second-largest cost in an electric vehicle after batteries. They are used in the drivetrain, onboard charger and many other locations. Improving the performance of these semiconductors can significantly improve the range of an electric vehicle. One example is the power converters that convert direct current (DC) energy to alternating current (AC) and AC to DC. The semiconductors for the power conversion technology that goes into these products are a critical component in the power conversion process.
When it comes to renewable energy, the costs for wind and solar power have dropped significantly over the last 10 years. But you need to think about power conversion and energy storage yet again. After all, the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing. If you have solar energy at your home, solar panels actually generate direct current. That has to be converted into alternating current so that you can use it in your home. That conversion process from direct current to alternating current isn’t 100% efficient because some energy is lost. The way to improve that is to improve the semiconductor devices in those power converters so that they can pull out more useful energy captured from the sun or stored in batteries.
Q: What is the B-TRAN semiconductor device and how is it different from other types of semiconductor devices?
A: We’ve come up with a really unique, high-efficiency semiconductor power switch. It really is targeting that conversion step from DC to AC or AC to DC by converting the energy more efficiently. As a result of that, products like electrical vehicles and renewable energy installations will become lower cost and more efficient.
It’s not just cost reduction, either. When you convert power more efficiently, less thermal energy is generated. So you have less need for components dedicated to thermal management, there’s just less waste heat to deal with. This means your products can be lighter, smaller, and less expensive.
Finally, the B-TRAN is bidirectional, which means energy can flow in both directions throughout the circuit. Most semiconductor devices on the market today can’t do that, so we view it as a big improvement.
Q: How does B-TRAN work and what are some of its other applications?
A: The B-TRANTM is a semiconductor device that is used to form a switch to control the flow of energy. For example, a light switch controls all the energy flowing to a light. Switching can also be done with semiconductor devices. It gives you the ability to switch energy on and off thousands of times per second, which allows you to do a lot of things with energy products and power conversion. It allows you to be a lot more efficient; the losses are reduced because you’re using one efficient semiconductor device as opposed to multiple less efficient semiconductors. It also gives you a more compact arrangement in terms of how you manage waste heat.
Applications include things like electric vehicles; electric vehicle charging; renewable energy, solar and wind power, which can be coupled with energy storage; standalone energy storage; solid-state circuit breakers for utility transmission and distribution systems; military applications; and things like uninterruptible power supply systems for data centers.
Q: What does improved energy efficiency in electric vehicles, for example, mean for the end user beyond just lower cost?
A: Range anxiety remains the biggest problem for electric vehicle owners and a significant barrier to adoption, along with their relatively high cost. However, if you were to use the B-TRANTM technology in the drivetrain, you could potentially improve the range of the vehicle by 7% to 10%. When it comes to how far you can drive without having to stop and find an electric vehicle charger, that’s a major improvement.
If you want to focus on lowering the cost even more, you could actually have fewer batteries on the vehicle for the same range because you can have more efficient power conversion by using things like B-TRANTM. Since batteries are the most expensive component on these vehicles, you could create more cost-effective models that are available to consumers looking for a lower price point.
Q: Could you describe the importance in boosting energy efficiency in electric vehicles and renewable energy as it relates to mass adoption?
A: There’s no doubt that improving energy efficiency, thereby reducing costs and streamlining designs, would incentivize more people to adopt these technologies. That’s true of consumer products like electric vehicles and household solar panels, as well as larger projects like the establishment of renewable energy installations. When things cost less, the barrier to mass adoption is reduced, that’s just a pretty simple equation. In electric vehicles, this takes the form of range. For renewable energy, it takes the form of useful kilowatt-hours.
If you could bring technology like B-TRANTM to these applications, you could potentially lower their costs and get more useful energy out of them by addressing the current inefficiency challenges. It makes these technologies more competitive and more attractive, and it reduces the perceived risk of both new technologies for the consumer.
Q: What are some other projects Ideal Power is working on that feature the B-TRAN?
A: We’re very excited to be partnering with the U.S. Navy and Diversified Technologies, Inc., which is focused on solid-state circuit breaker design, for the military’s ship electrification program. The aim of this program is to reduce the amount of liquid fuels the Navy uses to run ships by putting a DC infrastructure in the ships that uses batteries instead. The Navy also wants to make its ships quieter and more efficient, but so far, it hasn’t been able to do that because you need a fast-acting, efficient solid-state circuit breaker to control the flow of energy around the ship. That’s where technologies like B-TRANTM enabled solid-state circuit breakers come in.
Traditional mechanical circuit breakers are much too slow for this use case, so it needs to be a solid-state device that can act on orders of magnitude faster. Unfortunately, traditional semiconductors produce too much energy in the form of waste heat. That requires these large and expensive cooling systems to get rid of the waste heat. Since B-TRANTM has significantly lower conduction losses than other semiconductor devices, it doesn’t need the same level of thermal management. Along with Diversified Technologies, we were awarded a project by the Navy to produce a solid-state breaker that relies on our B-TRAN technology for a large-scale demonstration with the Navy later this year. The project aims to demonstrate a 12-kilovolt direct current solid-state circuit breaker at a Navy-sponsored facility.
Q: What are the challenges in articulating the benefits of the B-TRAN and the importance of semiconductor devices in general?
A: The major challenge really is just raising awareness not only of the technology but its importance in a way that resonates with more people. There are a lot of natural partners for us, from large global automobile manufacturers to large solar companies involved in the power converters for solar and energy storage. But as a small company with new technology, you’ve got to make them aware of the technology before you can expect them to get excited about it. Just because you’ve built it, doesn’t mean they will come. You’ve got to get through their qualification and validation processes, and you’re competing against some very large players that have high volume, traditional technologies out there.
A lot of it is just evangelizing your product and making the benefits clear, talking to the right people and getting them comfortable with the technology, educating them about it, and getting them to spend time and resources to evaluate it. To do that, we’ve put out whitepapers that describe the technology and how it works — we’re lucky there because the benefits of B-TRAN make themselves clear, so once you have their ear it kind of sells itself.
We also have an active outreach with potential customers where our business development team is educating them about the technology and getting their engagement in terms of how they could use it. We’re participating in trade shows. A lot of it is really just fundamental educational work in terms of outreach to make the community aware that there is this new technology that they need to be looking at.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.