Raj Radjassamy of ABB Power Conversion discusses the trends for WBG semiconductors and power management technologies in the context of applications such as renewable energy and EVs.
For several years, the growing need for power quality in distribution systems, together with the large-scale integration of renewable energy sources, has increased the demand for new technologies driven by the advent of new wide-bandgap (WBG) materials. With e-mobility becoming increasingly important, environmentally friendly battery technology is no longer an option but a necessity. Consumers, industries, and governments are all taking steps to increase their use of renewable energy, with several approaches supported by smart-grid interconnectivity.
In an interview with EE Times Europe, Raj Radjassamy, director, 5G wireless segment leader for ABB Power Conversion, discussed the trends for WBG semiconductors and power management technologies in the context of applications such as renewable energy and electric vehicles. “Miniaturization and power density are two of the biggest key trends for the next decade,” Radjassamy told us, and it’s only through innovations such as WBG devices “that we can save our customers invaluable and limited space.” As for power supply technology, “high-voltage DC deployment for data centers and 5G will become a must-have,” and the migration to wireless “requires power solutions robust enough to eliminate cables while remaining capable of accommodating an ever-increasing amount of power transmission.”
EE Times Europe: What will be the most critical technology trends over the next few years? In particular, which technological advancements will hold the most relevance? What are the technologies that can offer innovation for leadership?Raj Radjassamy: The miniaturization of technology — combined with feature aggregation — is a trend that has been prevalent throughout the 21st century that will continue to drive technological advancements in the future. Take, for instance, the iPhone. One of the reasons the iPhone has been so successful since its launch over a decade ago is that it combines multiple functionalities and replaces the need for disparate ancillary devices, like a camera or beeper, within a singular, compact design. Every new model of the iPhone introduces new capabilities while maintaining its handheld size, meaning that innovation and miniaturization are happening at the micro-board level, including in terms of how components within the device are powered.
The combined trend of miniaturization with feature aggregation is also evident in broader applications. For instance, to introduce 5G at scale, wireless networks are having to deploy miniaturized small cells that offer higher levels of connectivity within a smaller footprint. Powering these miniaturized cells requires the miniaturization and distribution of multiple, compact point-of-load DC/DC converters. Other industrial applications will need to adopt similar power supply structures to maintain a competitive advantage, from autonomous mobile robotics (AMRs) to smart-city devices powering the industrial internet of things (IIoT).
EETE: Do you find the power supply market more competitive due to so many brands coming into the market? What is the target/goal to introduce new devices?
Radjassamy: Competitiveness is not unique to the power supply market. What’s key is to differentiate products and services in how you solve customers’ problems by continuing to innovate with greater reliability and efficiency.
Furthermore, you raise the point that lots of new players promise huge innovation without being able to fully deliver on those capabilities. There’s something to be said for companies with a proven track record of delivering tangible results to their customers.
We’ve been able to use our historical, mission-critical expertise to power the transitions to faster broadband, and we’re seeing that being applied to 5G today through our AC/DC and DC/DC power solutions.
EETE: Which power supply technologies do you consider to be essential in the upcoming years?Radjassamy: High-voltage DC deployment for data centers and 5G will become a must-have for companies this decade to improve scalability and provide optimal protection from outages. Furthermore, the migration from wired to wireless technology requires power solutions robust enough to eliminate cables while remaining capable of accommodating an ever-increasing amount of power transmission. Moving forward, we’ll see power engineers innovate in remarkable ways to bring this vision to life, with wireless technology able to handle increased power loads in the complex web of connected infrastructure.
From a macro perspective, the capacity for 5G to make huge impacts in industrial and smart-city applications is just beginning. I expect we’ll see power engineers rethink their approach to network density in order to realize the potential of 5G with reliable hyper-connectivity at breakneck speeds and ultra-low latency.
EETE: Renewables, microgrids, and other energy trends are putting greater emphasis on the reliability of aging electrical infrastructure and transmission and distribution lines around the world. What are the design features for power monitoring and infrastructure monitoring along transmission and distribution lines and microgrids?Radjassamy: We’re seeing aging infrastructure as a real bottleneck to improving power grid performance. But it’s not an insurmountable problem. The answer lies in implementing technology that is both scalable and reliable; otherwise, a single solution won’t be replicable across a broad spectrum of power systems.
Tracking and monitoring grid performance on a regular basis will help ensure consistent, actionable analytics with minimal manual intervention. Power professionals are beginning to embrace new technologies through IIoT data analytics to keep operations up and running for longer periods of time.
As far as sustainability goes, there’s a big evolution and emphasis on multi-energies such as solar and hydropower backup, which is all, of course, dependent on the type of environment a given grid occupies. So, yes, we need to continue exploring those avenues where microgrids can support smaller cities or communities through sustainable power sources, but first, we need to get the infrastructure right.
EETE: Growing and supporting renewable energy pose a lot of challenges, not only with regard to GaN and SiC devices but also from a perspective of good control definition, optimization, and digital management of distributed energy resources. What is your view of these challenges?Radjassamy: You’re correct that there are a lot of challenges for renewable energy, but they are not unbeatable. First, there needs to be a better understanding of the criticality and energy needs of the entire power distribution value chain. Then we can identify solutions that will make the power network more reliable and renewable, encompassing new semiconductor technology like GaN/SiC and using advanced technologies like IIoT and predictive analytics to continuously track, monitor, and act on a real-time basis.
We have to remember that energy applications are currently disjointed. As technology merges, there’s an opportunity to create a more holistic view in robotics, AI, and analytics to enable more efficient cross-use and integration. But the challenge starts with connecting systems that weren’t initially designed to speak to each other.
EETE: Battery stacks based on lithium-ion cells are used in many applications, such as hybrid vehicles and EVs, storage of renewable energy for use at a later time, and energy storage on the grid for various purposes. What parameters should designers consider with regard to the battery? What is the future of energy storage?Radjassamy: Energy storage via battery is here to stay. The paramount question is: What is the most efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly way to go about it? From a 10,000-foot view, key considerations for companies include size, weight, safety, and cost of ownership.
Drilling down, as you note, the lithium-ion battery and its variants are more and more commonplace in consumer applications, but they aren’t always the cheapest options on an industrial scale. However, as lithium battery technology continues to evolve and scale to broader use cases, there are key benefits in leveraging the technology for data centers, robotics, and [other applications]. With new infrastructure and miniaturized power density applications, lithium batteries are often the right course of action when considering weight, energy density, storage, and more. Supercapicitors are another emerging, noteworthy technology; [supercaps] offer short-term burst-mode energy storage and are quickly gaining traction among server and data center system designers.
EETE: Silicon carbide and gallium nitride semiconductors have advantages over silicon semiconductors for power applications, especially in the power supply market. What do you think their role will be as the race continues to serve the market’s rising power requirements?Radjassamy: We agree that SiC and GaN are emerging technologies in the power industry and that they are here to stay. Miniaturization and power density are two of the biggest key trends for the next decade, and it’s only through these types of innovations that we can save our customers invaluable and limited space.
However, it’s important to note that they aren’t applicable in every use case, due to their high cost. Depending on how old the existing infrastructure is, we make recommendations based on in-depth evaluations of individual customers’ needs and what’s best for them.
EETE: With the development of intelligent technologies, many companies are making key contributions to dealing with the global challenge of climate change, and new materials and efficient chip solutions play a central role in this process. What resources are available for engineers who are willing to get started with energy design?Radjassamy: Increasingly, green-field data centers are built in regions that offer abundant renewable energy sources such as hydro, wind, and solar. As their contribution to this global endeavor, power designers can make a conscious effort to build highly efficient products that meet or exceed industry [efficiency] standards, such as 80Plus Titanium.
They can also leverage advanced simulation tools to identify an energy-efficient and minimalist set of components in their design and find intelligent energy-saving designs that are automated and data-driven.
EETE: The transition from centralized to distributed energy resources is heavily fragmented. It’s important to facilitate the acceleration of the energy transition. Many forms of energy storage are being proposed to be used in the electric power grid. What are your considerations?Radjassamy: We’re committed to enabling any technology that gets connected to energy grids, whether that’s hydro, solar, wind, or any other renewable source. As I mentioned above, it’s imperative to integrate renewable energy sources, as well as natural resources, into a cohesive, intelligently managed mainframe in order to create a full picture of how each is supplying power to the end user and at what cost.
Power design should be agnostic of the power source input — at the end of the day, we’re looking to power as the ultimate enabler of everything. It’s up to those at the forefront of modern power to build the right infrastructure and apply the right technologies to make the applications as efficient and reliable as possible.
This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio holds a Ph.D. in Physics and is a telecommunication engineer and journalist. He has worked on various international projects in the field of gravitational wave research. He collaborates with research institutions to design data acquisition and control systems for space applications. He is the author of several books published by Springer, as well as numerous scientific and technical publications on electronics design.