Power Electronics

Is Engineering Innovation in a Slump?

Patent applications are a key indicator of the state of innovation in the U.S. According to the October 21 issue of the Los Angeles Times, “Patent applications had been growing at double-digit rates since the mid-1990s. But in fiscal 2002, which ended September 30, the number of patent applications was about 350,000, less than a 2% increase over the roughly 345,000 applications filed in fiscal 2001.”

Another sign of the times is that R&D spending by U.S. companies will increase 3.2% this year, according to a study by the non-profit Battelle Memorial Institute and R&D magazine. In 2000 R&D budgets increased by 10.8%.

What does this mean? Have engineers stopped looking for new technologies and new circuit configurations. Are the major technology companies restricting innovation because of the economy? The answers may be “not exactly” and “maybe,” respectively.

Another possibility might be that technology companies are looking for “blockbuster” advances and are less concerned about minimal improvements. That thinking might be myopic because many of the major technology advances have been the result of multiple small-step improvements.

From a power electronics viewpoint, there are many areas that require innovation, so we hope the present economic situation will not have a lasting effect on innovation. Several new technical problems are waiting for solutions:

  • New fuel cell development is necessary at several levels. The micro fuel cell has the potential of providing a longer run time alternative to batteries. Larger fuel cells can supply the power for automobiles, eliminating the need for oil. These systems involve chemistry and metallurgy, and they will require power electronics to make them practical.

  • Photovoltaics are another source of energy that must be enhanced for economic feasiblity. These systems will require power electronic circuits to regulate the power and maintain regulation regardless of solar conditions.

  • The IC industry is moving ahead toward microprocessors that will operate at less than 1V with current that can reach to tens or hundreds of amperes. Power sources for these future systems will require efficient and cost effective power management. When the projected low-voltage, high current processors are ready will the appropriate power supplies also be available?

  • Innovative thermal management techniques will be required to enable power electronic systems to shrink. It must go beyond the heatsink and fan stage. There must be cost and performance effective techniques. It might mean a substantial reduction in the semiconductor power loss achieved by lowering the on-resistance of MOSFETs and IGBTs.

  • EMI continues to be a worldwide problem with new standards being introduced almost every year. Power electronic radiated noise must be reduced and circuits must reduce their conducted emissions to prevent interference with other systems through the powerline.

We hope the innovation slump is only temporary, but we realize that R&D money must come from somewhere. A poor economy can stifle innovation, but innovation can also help to improve the economy.

I hope this situation is different from my experience in the aerospace industry. When business was good, there weren't enough people. When business was bad, there wasn't enough money. The only time when we were able to do R&D was between the bad and good times.

What's your take on innovation in the power electronics industry? Send comments to [email protected].

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