More power to the people: Power follows the pattern of data evolution as the two often converge

In his Tech Trends column, Chief Technologist Ahmad Bahai explains emerging technology trends that will change our world and the key innovations needed to make them a reality.

Tech Trends with Ahmad Bahai

Thirty years ago, the way we all interacted with data began a seismic shift from centralized information that flowed from giant telecommunication and over-the-air broadcast companies to our wired telephones and televisions.

Now, the evolution of high-voltage power is following a similar trajectory.

We are seeing higher power conversion in smaller form factors. In our daily life, we see more and more demand on power efficiency, intelligence and footprint. There is now significant storage capacity in a mobile device’s battery, and it still struggles to keep up with our usage and expectations.

Data centerOn a larger scale, we see data centers growing and consuming more than 70 megawatts of total power at any point in time – a significant amount of energy -- even as they idle and anticipate web-search clicks. In the automotive world, electric vehicles can run on an 800-volt battery supply while supporting 12-volt and 48-volt rails. This demands new power devices and highly efficient power conversion among different voltage domains.

Power is no longer available only from giant generation plants and distributed over miles of AC electric lines. You can harvest power from solar panels on your rooftop and then sell it back into the grid. A wall-mounted battery, charged daily from solar panels, can provide enough energy to free you from the electric grid. Even your electric car may someday serve as an energy-storage center.

And much like the way data has become decentralized, interconnected and able to be stored in a multitude of ways – from cloud-based servers to USB drives in your pocket – changes in the generation, storage, distribution and flow of power will have far-reaching effects on how we live our lives and do our work.

You might call it getting more power to the people.

But the relationship between data and power doesn’t stop with the similar ways they have evolved. Now they’re beginning to converge, in some applications, into the same media and be transferred together over next-generation USB connections and – embedded more deeply in our high-voltage applications – over isolation barriers in integrated chips.

These generational transformations are having a significant impact on innovation in the semiconductor industry.

Energy efficiency

Automotive greenerWe live in a power-hungry digital world. Every time we check our social media feeds, pay our bills, download a book or send an email, we tap into a large number of servers that sit in vast data centers.

Those servers require enormous amounts of electricity as they are anticipating or processing your clicks. The demand for the power that keeps them humming, that keeps growing numbers of electric and hybrid-electric vehicles on the road, and that energizes a rising electrification wave will continue to grow. Many of those innovations are still gleams in their inventors’ eyes.

And as these innovations increasingly become integral to our daily lives, our continually growing appetite for energy won’t be sustainable. The need to improve energy efficiency has become urgent.

Groundbreaking materials

Like data, power today moves in many directions. And converting high-voltage energy – from AC to DC, DC to DC, and DC to AC – requires efficient power-conversion modules. As the demand for power grows, those modules, in turn, require even more efficient, better-performing technologies that deliver high-voltage power under sometimes tough conditions.

GaN technologyThat’s where advanced technologies manufactured on gallium nitride, silicon carbide and silicon super junction will make a significant difference. These materials generate less heat than traditional silicon power devices, which means they transfer high-voltage power among multiple sources and convert from one source to another efficiently.

These groundbreaking technologies require complex circuit architectures and packaging technologies that are vastly different than the architectures that have formed the foundation of semiconductor development for generations. And while traditional CMOS technologies have generally followed Moore’s Law – doubling data transmission and processing rates every couple of years – these new materials deliver step-function improvement in high-voltage power density about every five to 10 years.  

These improvements are critical in a highly electrified world. Demand for higher power efficiency in battery operated systems is key as battery technology can hardly keep up with the emergence of new features. Also, improvements in power management are essential for applications such as the growing number of data centers that enable so many parts of our connected lives. The servers in those centers consume enormous amounts of electricity, and these semiconductor technologies will improve their efficiency by reducing the number of step-down power conversions.

In the automotive world, designers are incorporating more power-hungry, high-voltage electronics into vehicles every year. Interestingly enough, each 100 watts of power adds $5 in manufacturing costs, and automotive power is growing at 100 watts per year – even faster for electric vehicles. Advanced power devices gallium nitride and silicon carbide will play an increasingly important role in these circuits because of their ability to improve power density. With electric vehicles, for example, that means batteries get charged faster, hold a charge longer, go farther and run more high-voltage systems.

USB Type-C™ technology

USB Type-CPower and data are converging in next-generation USB Type-C connections that are changing the way we plug in to the technologies we use every day. For example, most notebook computers today incorporate several connections – for charging, displays, audio and more traditional USB interfaces.

USB Type-C, the connection that is becoming the new standard, consolidates all those data and power ports into one high-capacity line that you can plug in right side up or upside down.

Isolation barrier

Power and data are also converging in their journey over the isolation barrier used in high-voltage circuits for applications ranging from air-conditioning systems to factory automation. The need for isolated power is growing rapidly, and, while the capability to transfer data over that barrier has been available for several years, transferring power required a discrete transformer that took up valuable board space and created reliability problems.

But a new device – ISOW7841 – has solved that challenge by integrating multiple silicon die and a transformer into a single package that is 80 percent more efficient in power transfer and runs much quieter than other solutions on the market.

More semiconductor content

As our economy continues to grow, the technologies that operate our automobiles, data centers, factories, homes and the many other systems that improve our lives, in turn, will need to operate more efficiently.

And as power management technology becomes more critical for every electronic system, the pace of innovation will continue to increase and the number of semiconductors at the center of our digital lives will grow.