Power Electronics

Will Energy Issues Invert Power-Design Priorities?

In the context of power electronics, the term “power management” is frequently used as a euphemism for power conversion (particularly the control portion of a power converter) or for any interface or housekeeping functions. For example, sequencing and tracking of supply voltages at startup, supply monitoring and fault reporting all could be described as power-management functions.

We happen to associate all of these power-management functions with power-controller ICs. Not surprisingly, power-semiconductor vendors seem to play a big part in spreading the use of term power management far and wide. But you may ask, does any of this really matter? Yes, to the extent that it says something about where the power-semiconductor industry has been focusing its attention.

Over the past 10 years, we've seen an explosion in the development of power ICs brought on by the booms in wireless, Internet and consumer applications. The power levels in these applications probably range from watts or milliwatts in the case of battery-powered products, to perhaps a few kilowatts in the case of power supplies developed for networking or telecom equipment.

That's the backdrop against which many power-supply chips have been developed. And in the quest to make these devices and their applications more efficient, power IC designers have been battling current consumption in their devices down to the nanoamp level in some cases.

But then came the latest energy crisis on top of already growing concerns about global warming. Of course, these issues have helped fuel demand for greater efficiency (both power and energy efficiency) in the forementioned applications. But they've also focused a great deal of attention on renewable energy and the need for energy efficiency at kilowatt and higher power levels. The power IC industry has taken notice. Witness the recent increase in articles on inverter design in the pages of this magazine.

There's also a new conference hoping to capitalize on the industry's interest in renewable energy and energy efficiency. The event, known as the Energy Conversion Congress and Expo (ECCE), scheduled for September 2009 in San Jose, Calif., grew out of two existing IEEE conferences. One was the annual Power Electronics Specialists Conference (PESC); the other was the Industrial Applications Society's (IAS) annual meeting, specifically the section devoted to the Industrial Power Conversion Systems Department. (The rest of the IAS annual meeting will continue as usual.)

According to Peter Wung, the publicity chair for ECCE 2009, combining these two events made sense because of their overlapping focus. While APEC has had much success in addressing power electronics as it applies to power converters, PESC and IAS have served more as forums for discussing energy conversion, particularly as it applies to converting electrical to mechanical energy in motors.

Although ECCE will replace PESC, the intention is not just to create another academic conference, but rather build a new one that also has more industry participation, hence the “expo” part of the name.

Arnold Alderman, an industry consultant who is closely involved with planning for APEC and ECCE, notes that the new event will also focus more on medium- and higher-power levels.

“A big part of the ECCE conference will be about larger equipment such as large motor drives and even megawatt power converters. Some typical sizes would be 100 kW or kVA and greater. In contrast, the biggest unit shown in most of the APEC exhibition would be one-tenth the size of these systems,” explains Alderman.

Although the semiconductor industry isn't going to shift gears from low-power to high-power overnight, in time I expect that both power IC and discrete semiconductor developers will devote greater attention to the “big power” applications. And given the importance of energy efficiency, we might one day see an “inversion” of IC design priorities from the now countless low-power applications to the high-power products of an energy-centric future. If that change ever does happen, we'll probably hear a semiconductor industry that buzzes about energy management rather than power management.

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