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Google offers up US$1 million prize to shrink size of power inverters

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July 28, 2014

Google and the IEEE are offering a US$1 million prize in their Little Box challenge

Google and the IEEE are offering a US$1 million prize in their Little Box challenge

The old saying says good things come in small packages. Google and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) seem to agree having launched the Little Box Challenge, an open competition with a US$1 million first prize to find innovative electronic designs to shrink power inverters down from their current bigger-than-a-bread-box size to something less than the size of a small laptop.

A power inverter is a device that converts the direct current (DC) electricity stored in batteries to alternating current (AC) electricity that most of the electrical devices around our homes consume. In this case, the challenge requires entrants to use 450 volts DC – a common voltage used in multi-battery solar panel or wind turbine systems – and convert it to domestic 240 volt AC capable of supplying 2 kW of power. But size is key, with a power density of at least 50 watts per cubic inch required to make the cut.

Reducing the size of inverters to something more manageable – at around 40 cubic in (655 cubic cm) – will make them cheaper to manufacture. In this way, the ultimate vision for the competition is to expand the use of solar power in homes, lead to more efficient distributed electrical grids and help bring electricity to remote areas.

However, reading the fine print reveals that any design also offer AC output of a quality that is as good or better than current run-of-the-mill inverters. For example, the AC frequency total harmonic distortion (how well the unit replicates, for example, a standard AC power supply sine wave) of any inverter competing in the challenge needs to be less than 5 percent and have a power factor efficiency (that is the difference between the input power and the output power) greater than 95 percent.

These are figures that stable computer power supplies are expected to achieve and, given that the inverter must be capable of delivering around 2 kW of power, this results in a power density of at least 50 W per cubic inch, which is a very ambitious target indeed.

Other equally difficult challenges include keeping any external surface of the device that can be easily touched – including air vents – at temperatures below 60° C (140° F), which with such tightly-packed components and relatively high wattages will be thermodynamically challenging to say the least. And to make it even more difficult, the competition specifically forbids any external cooling methods, such as water circulation, to be used.

Google believes that the newly available range of wide band gap (WBG) semiconductors, such as Gallium Nitride (GaN) and Silicon Carbide (SiC) will likely be the best type of devices to incorporate in the designs and is actively promoting their use. Google has provided a list of WBG device manufacturers who have web pages describing their technology which will detail how these devices may give contestants an advantage in the competition. The sites will also detail a way of getting hold of some of their semiconductors for use in competition inverters.

If you think that you can design and build an inverter that meets these and other specifications, the deadline for entering the challenge is September 30, 2014, with full technical and testing application details to be supplied by competitors by July 22, 2015.

Up to 18 submissions will be considered for the final stage of testing and the competitors will be required to bring their inverters in person to a testing facility in the US by October 21, 2015. After a raft of assessments conducted in over 100 hours of testing, and as determined by a panel of judges, the individual or team design that best meets the brief will be announced the winner.

Google Research is also making a limited number of awards available to academics in concert with the prize and applications may be made at the Research Google Website.

All going to plan, the grand prize winner is expected to be announced in January, 2016.

Source: Little Box Challenge

About the Author
Colin Jeffrey Colin discovered technology at an early age, pulling apart clocks, radios, and the family TV. Despite his father's remonstrations that he never put anything back together, Colin went on to become an electronics engineer. Later he decided to get a degree in anthropology, and used that to do all manner of interesting things masquerading as work. Even later he took up sculpting, moved to the coast, and never learned to surf.   All articles by Colin Jeffrey
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4 Comments

Sounds really good. And though $1 million may seem low for such a monumental challenge, Google doesn't take ownership. So the inventor gets paid for his work and also gets to make many millions off of the new product.

I'm going to have to read more about these wide band gap semiconductors. My initial reaction was that some kind of room temp superconductor would be needed to solve this problem.

Stradric
28th July, 2014 @ 07:49 pm PDT

Sounds impossible. Industry giants like SMA and upstarts alike have been at this game for decades with scores of highly trained engineers - and Google expects some tinkerer without a massive R&D budget to be lured by prize money to come up with a solution for a problem that may so close to absolute physical limits as to be impossible.

moreover
29th July, 2014 @ 04:48 pm PDT

Single individuals who are out of the mainstream do amazing things at times. Other times they are complete buffoons. No way to tell ahead of time who will be the next Einstein ... with some stunning analogies..... I look forward with anticipation.

99gusPuppet
29th July, 2014 @ 10:25 pm PDT

Why not just keep improving micro inverters that cater for ~250W ? Why do we need ones for the whole 2kW or is it not domestic focused but more for larger scale solar arrays?

crash486
2nd August, 2014 @ 04:52 pm PDT
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