The future is smaller, faster, cheaper… and more energy efficient

Power electronics technology is enabling big advances in electric transportation and smart energy delivery, as well as playing an important role in meeting the ever-increasing demand for global connectivity and data storage. In this blog, we explore some of these opportunities and the up and coming technology solutions that are already revolutionising the world.

Electric Vehicles are fast becoming mainstream. For example, Tesla has developed from a start-up to a company with significant production capability, and we can see dozens of new models entering the market helped by financial incentives and tax breaks aimed at reducing fossil fuel demand. Market analysis firm IHS Markit predicts over 300 electric car models will be available in the EU by 2025. Batteries, electronic drives and the charging infrastructure are the foundations of this revolution, facilitating a transition from energy delivered rapidly in liquid form, to the clean and convenient power conducted by copper wires. However, right now the UK electricity grid infrastructure, like many around the world, can’t cope with significant adoption of EVs. So it is likely that smarter grid solutions, enabled by power electronics will be needed to support this innovation.

Another major application of power electronics is renewable energy conversion, both in consumer and commercial applications. While cleaner energy is a longer-term play, governments around the world are investing and carbon emissions are being driven down; for example, the UK has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, and is poised to bring forward a ban on new fossil fuel vehicles to 2030 from 2040 as a way to help speed up adoption.

Other demands on energy are growing fast as well. For example, the number of devices connected to the Internet is exponentially increasing each year as our desire to consume data, such as online streaming services continues to grow.  This in turn drives networks, storage, bandwidth, and ultimately an increasing requirement for the electrical energy that powers these systems.

These applications all depend on power conversion or moving the electricity from one format to the next as the energy travels from generation to storage to point of use. To support this revolution, the electronic building blocks needed must become smaller, cheaper and more reliable, and most importantly, more energy efficient.

Advances in semiconductor technology such as new power switching devices based on Silicon Carbide (SiC) and Gallium Nitride (GaN) wafer materials offer faster and more energy efficient switching performance than ever before. These WBG devices are a crucial ingredient to achieving higher power densities and greater efficiency when compared to traditional Silicon-based power converters.

WBG devices can switch faster, run hotter, handle higher voltages, and are available in smaller foot-print packages. Cost is a critical factor at the moment, but for the right applications they can offer a step-change improvement in both overall system-level converter cost and efficiency; representing a significant breakthrough and enabling new and exciting end applications. In the longer term, as production volumes rise, WBG devices are expected to reach price parity with Silicon MOSFETs. For GaN on Silicon devices, perhaps cost parity will even be achieved with Silicon IGBTs, due to their common Silicon wafer processes and greater process simplicity for the GaN device. As an example, both Tesla and Toyota have already used Silicon Carbide semiconductors in the traction drive systems for their electric cars. These devices have also found application in the DC and AC power converters in both the off-board and on-board charging systems.

However, WBG devices are not a simple drop-in replacement for existing Silicon devices. They present significant implementation challenges, often resulting in performance that is far from optimal, or designs that prove unreliable and prone to failure. Engineers have passed through a learning curve with each new generation of Silicon switching device. WBG devices are a significant step in that evolutionary path and require even greater attention to circuit details; in particular, a good understanding of low inductance high current printed circuit board design.

Fully accessing the benefits of WBG devices requires significant detail engineering. What was once the realm of the power electronics engineer has now become a significant cross-functional challenge. The latest chip-scale packaging requires careful attention to thermal management that is a collaborative design between electrical and mechanical disciplines to create a multi-physics solution. Also, in these high-performance circuits, test and measurement present significant challenges as fast switching edges generate harmonic frequencies that are well into radio frequency engineering. 

But the business opportunity is the potential to get a better product to the market and avoid getting left behind in an inevitably changing technology environment.

CDP has a specialist team of engineers who can create new products with energy conversion utilising the latest WBG technologies, and get them to market rapidly. Using our core capabilities, technology building blocks and quality processes, we can help realise the promise of smaller, faster, cheaper…. and a more energy efficient future.


James Baker

Partner and Head of Electronics and Software
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Ed Shelton

Energy and Sustainability Business Leader
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