by Jeffrey Morroni
Feb 16, 2018
by Jeffrey Morroni

As our world becomes increasingly reliant on technology, global energy consumption is growing dramatically. Driven by many applications – including data centers, automotive and industrial – global consumer spending on electricity has neared spending on oil products.(1) To support these trends, designers are utilizing semiconductor solutions, leading to the worldwide purchase of 824 billion semiconductors in 2016 to power their homes, cars and workplaces.(2)

Designers of these products seek power-management technologies that enable them to work more competitively while complying with environmentally conscious energy-usage laws.

Two years ago, we described three key power and energy management trends that would dominate our industry through 2020. The trends we identified – energy efficiency, power density, and big-data storage and delivery – are growing and are still among the top key challenges in 2018. With the speed of technological evolution, three additional trends drive our work today: distributed and renewable energy, electrification of vehicles, and the automation of factories and industrial buildings.

We provide power-management technologies to design engineers across many applications, and our innovations address the toughest power-management challenges in all six of these categories. Here’s why we’ve zeroed in on these six trends – and how we’re addressing them:

1. Energy efficiency

By 2020, data centers are expected to consume more than 73 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year – enough to power more than 10 million average homes.(3) The more data they churn, the more energy data centers require for cooling and the greater burden they place on the grid.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, adopting additional energy-efficiency strategies could result in a 45 percent reduction
in electricity demand.(4) We can reduce energy demands from data centers with new strategies and technologies that minimize loss and improve efficiency.

Improving energy efficiency delivers savings in two areas – reducing the energy required in data-center transactions and reducing the overall cooling requirements for servers. Innovation opportunities exist all the way up to the server power-delivery architecture and all the way down to point-of-load topologies.

New topologies – such as resonant and hybrid DC/DC converters – offer the benefit of reduced size, improved efficiency and lower temperature rises. Combining these techniques with algorithms allowing for low idle power consumption and fast wake takes us a significant step toward the 45 percent reduction predicted by the U.S. Department of Energy.

At the macro level, server systems are limited by the number of power-conversion steps. By investing in topologies that allow for direct conversion, new power delivery schemes previously deemed impractical are now within reach. Imagine eliminating three conversion steps by going from 400-volt DC distribution directly to the CPUs. These types of disruptive approaches are enabled by innovations in power management and semiconductors. 

2. Storing and delivering big data

As global demand for rapidly accessible data continues to grow, so too will the demand for energy to store and retrieve data. Controlling the costs and environmental impact of that demand will be a critical challenge.

Cloud storage has exploded over the last few years with consumers uploading and storing more information on the cloud than ever before. Each of these transactions uses energy. For example, the process of recording a home video, uploading and storing it to the cloud, and retrieving it later requires energy. By enabling power-management solutions with the highest active mode efficiency, low sleep power consumption and ultra-fast wakeup times, semiconductors can enable all of these transactions at the minimum required energy consumption. 

3. Power density

Despite improvements, power density of power supplies has not scaled with Moore’s Law. As semiconductors enable more features, power demands increase. For example, the rapid adoption of mobile phones across the planet was, in many ways, enabled by lithium-ion battery technologies that allow more features in the phone while maintaining sufficient battery life for the phone to last a day.

What can be lost in that trend is that as batteries get bigger and better, the chargers that supply them have lagged behind. One could imagine a scenario where a full-featured smartphone might last all day but it might then take all night to charge. Improved power density is the key to enabling better user experiences.

Our company has invested heavily in power density. One of those investments, directed toward the battery charger will debut at the APEC 2018 conference – so stay tuned.

4. Distributed and renewable energy

There’s a clear demand to generate and distribute energy more efficiently. The challenge lies in enabling power conversion and processing of different energy sources with maximum efficiency. Gallium nitride (GaN) and Silicon Carbide (SiC) offer this potential by combining the unique ability to operate at high voltages with high efficiency and small size.

Although limited in their adoption until now, both GaN and SiC demonstrate previously unattainable efficiencies and densities at voltage ranges necessary to support distributed and renewable energy.

To take these technologies from interesting prototypes to mass adoption, we believe that integration of the gate driver in the package can make the difference. In the LMG3410, we have demonstrated that having the gate driver in close proximity to the devices enables the necessary performance and manufacturability to take these technologies to the next level of adoption.

5. Electrification of vehicles

It’s easy to see how cars have changed over the last 10 years. The number of electronics in each new generation of cars continues to accelerate. Features such as automatic braking, lane-departure sensors and automatic-beam steering headlights are now commonplace and enabled by semiconductors and power management. Even the number of electric vehicles – previously limited in adoption due to range, cost and charge time – are expected to expand from 2 million to 280 million by 2040(5) due largely to improvements in semiconductor-based electronics.

Inside the car, integrating more electronics provides consumers with better experiences, but with these technology improvements comes the challenge of electromagnetic interference (EMI). EMI, both radiated and conducted, can create interference in mission-critical systems, leading to a disappointing user experience or, worse, safety concerns.  

EMI mitigation has therefore become a huge challenge and a huge innovation opportunity. Investing in techniques ranging from spread spectrum (see TPS55165 for example) to adaptive gate drivers to active noise cancellation enables even faster acceleration of electronics and technology in future vehicles.

6. Industrial automation

Industrial automation offers the ability improve productivity and manufacturing efficiency. With this opportunity comes the challenge of safety. Automated factories often have heavy equipment requiring high voltages to operate, making them harsh and potentially dangerous.

A key enabler for industrial automation therefore becomes isolation technologies that allow for sensor nodes and operators to work effectively and safely in the presence of high voltages. Imagine having the ability to transfer lower power to various sensor systems while protecting the operator from voltage surges 60 times greater than household voltages across a distance less than the diameter of a coin. These are exactly the technologies we enable when designers use devices such as the ISOW7841.

Our company is addressing the opportunities and challenges these trends present by developing new technology. We’re excited that our innovations are helping customers solve their power and energy-management challenges.

Jeff Morroni is director of power management for Kilby Labs, our company’s research-and-development group. He holds a doctorate in power management from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

3. Department of Energy Also see:
4. Department of Energy
6. Nanochip Fab Solutions