Power Electronics

"A" is for Analog and Other Musings on APEC

Acronyms are a great shorthand for names and titles that are too long to roll off the tongue, or too cumbersome to be repeated in print. Imagine if we had to write out MOSFET every time it appeared in an article. Some acronyms are funny, clever and even a bit naughty. SNAFU is one that comes to mind.

And if you're so inclined, you may sometimes be tempted to take a perfectly good acronymn and put a new spin on it, giving it another layer of meaning. That's my temptation this year with “APEC,” which as you probably know, stands for the Applied Power Electronics Conference and Exposition.

As I said, APEC's full name is a perfectly good description of the event. But, like every thriving conference, it is a mix of things, some of which remain the same from year to year, and others that change. By “things,” I mean themes, issues and even focus. So, to convey my impressions of how this year's APEC in Austin, Texas, both resembled and differed from previous conferences, I'd like to reassign the letters in APEC, if only temporarily.

First, I would like to rename the “A” and call it analog. For the past several years, digital power control was a prominent topic of discussion. Just about every year, there is a plenary session about digital power and/or a rap session. This year, neither.

That's not to say, there wasn't plenty of discussion of digital control in the rest of the conference. There may even have been more technical papers on digital than last year (I didn't count). Plus, there were a few new digital power controllers unveiled at APEC.

However, I walked away from the plenary session and the exhibition thinking more about analog power components, particularly MOSFETs and IGBTs. A large variety of these power switches were either introduced or demonstrated at APEC 2008.

In the plenary session, Steven Schulz also left me thinking analog with his talk on “Power Electronics for Electric and Hybrid Vehicles.” Schulz, who works for General Motors, gave an insightful talk on how hybrid electric vehicles need and warrant application-specific power components.

Schulz focused mainly on the traction inverter, and presented his wish list for the types of component improvements he'd like to see in parts such as IGBTs, bus capacitors and sensors. With IGBTs, the main wish was for silicon that could operate up to 200°C to ease cooling requirements, and this seemed to prompt a Q&A from the audience about the potential benefits of compound semiconductors.

For the “P” in APEC, I think of Mark Jacobs' plenary talk, “Patents: How They Work and Strategic Business Considerations.” Jacobs used his presentation to give some background on patents, what inventions are patentable, insights into the application process and how various types of patent experts can help engineers navigate the patent application process.

Patents were also the subject of a rap session that pondered whether they are worth the trouble. Perhaps patents are top of mind these days because of all the fabless semiconductor startups who owe their business to their intellectual property rather than their manufacturing might. Or maybe it's the many high-profile industry lawsuits. (APEC attendees also got a rare dose of “portable” electronics thanks to Peter Henry's talk.)

The “E” in APEC is an easy one: efficiency, or more exactly, energy efficiency, as this has been a prominent theme at APEC and other conferences for a few years. This year's plenary carried the theme forward with talks on energy efficiency in the data center by Jonathan Koomey, and energy efficiency across the energy customer chain by Arnold Alderman. Even the plenary on adjustable speed motor drives by Russel Kerkman was indirectly connected to the efficiency theme.

So there you have it. This year's Applied Power Electronics Conference also had the flavor of an Analog Patent Energy-efficiency Conference. I know its not as catchy as the real name, and too eclectic to stick. All the same, it's a temporary reminder of some old and new topics that power electronics engineers will be grappling with for years to come.

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