It's a wrap at APEC – power trends, friends and automobiles

The 2017 Applied Power Electronics Conference (APEC) did not disappoint. The annual pilgrimage to the premier global event in power electronics was full of ideas, implementations and illuminations. Let me share some of the key takeaways from the energizing week.

Data center power delivery could see some major restructuring. Two plenary talks (one by Google, another by TI – “Power Semiconductor Technology – Flexibility for Tomorrow’s Solutions”) highlighted the benefits of 48V bus architectures to improve efficiency and power density. Several vendors demonstrated 48V solutions in the exhibit hall too. However, as Shuai Jiang from Google pointed out in his plenary, there are still open questions about the best approach. Are transformer-based converters the way to go or could you use hybrid converter topologies? Should there be one conversion stage or two stages? What are the cost, efficiency, performance, design and manufacturing implications? I imagine we’ll be hearing more about this topic for the next several years as these issues are debated and addressed. For now, you can see TI’s AC-to-processor demo in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Powering Tomorrow’s Datacenters from AC input to processors

Another reoccurring theme is wide bandgap semiconductors like gallium nitride (GaN) and silicon carbide (SiC). What was evident this year was the move to further levels of integration and solving system-level challenges. It’s no longer enough just to show a new switch. Integrating gate drivers and protection features into the devices is important. Providing easy-to-use solutions that solve real problems of size, efficiency and performance is necessary. You could sense this shift in the way people talk about wide bandgap devices. There was less discussion about the intrinsic capabilities and parameters of wide bandgap semiconductors and more demonstrations of application challenges that the technology overcomes. Re-architecting the converter design may be an important step to getting the most out of wide bandgap devices. Otherwise, you are using a sports car engine to drive a station wagon.

Automotive electronics was also a highlight of the conference. Everything from electric vehicle (EV) and hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) systems to USB Type-C™ and infotainment got attention. An overview of power conversion needs for future cars is shown in Figure 2. The case was made for 48V and 12V buses in vehicles. The idea of a mid-voltage bus (42V or 48V) has been around for some time, but the convergence of mild hybrids, start-stop functionality and more electrically driven loads may bring the approach center stage. Add on top of it the growing compute power for advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and infotainment, and the standard power trees may not be able to handle future vehicle electronics needs.

Figure 2: Power conversion in future cars

The power electronics community is always trying to get to the next level of performance, size and efficiency. Every year at APEC there are many conversations about converter topologies, control techniques and devices that could help provide that competitive edge. Bob Mammano and other luminaries bantered about “Power Electronic Topologies: Do We Need More or Any Benefit to New Ones?” in one of the rap sessions (get Bob’s new book, “Fundamentals of Power Supply Design,” from Amazon). TI showed off the TPSM84A21/A22, which leverages a novel series capacitor buck converter to achieve high-efficiency voltage step down in a very small form factor. Innovations in power conversion really energize the conference attendees. Perhaps that is why so many people make their yearly pilgrimage to APEC.

Watch the video of TI’s booth demonstrations at APEC 2017 or download the quick guide detailing all of TI's demonstrations at the show.

Be sure to get more information about all of TI’s efforts at APEC. See you at APEC next year, March 4-8, 2018, in San Antonio.