As the instigators of the original Longitude Prize of 1714 knew, there’s nothing quite like a substantial prize fund to focus the mind of scientists and engineers. Since then, offering a handsome prize as a reward for solving a particular scientific or engineering problem has proven particularly effective in fostering innovation and making substantial scientific leaps.
Software giant Google, which already has prize funds set aside for a wide range of competitions which include a lunar landing, cleaning up our oceans and building a self-driving car, has just launched a $1 million competition in collaboration with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to find a way to shrink a power inverter down to the size of a tablet computer.
The Little Box Challenge, announced a few days ago, seeks to reduce the size of current power inverter technology to a tenth of its current size, achieving a power destiny of 50 watts per cubic inch. For those who don’t know, an inverter turns alternating current into direct current and vice versa, making it possible to turn the type of electricity from a battery pack or solar panel into the type of electricity you can use to power a home.
Power inverters are also used in most modern electric cars to turn the direct current from a car’s battery pack into the alternating current needed to power the AC motor, so this particular challenge could dramatically revolutionise the electric car world.
We’re not just talking about the size of the main DC/AC power inverter used to power the motor however: we’re talking about the way you get power in and out of the car.
That’s because onboard chargers for electric cars also use inverters to take mains current from a charging station and turn it into DC power to store in a battery pack. Because of size constraints, on-board chargers have traditionally been very low-powered, meaning it takes electric cars many hours to charge up from a domestic charging station. If power inverter technology becomes smaller, it may be possible for automakers to build more powerful on-board chargers without compromising on space.
Perhaps more intriguing, however, is the possibility that a miniaturised power inverter could not only power your car’s on-board charger, but be used to provide power to your home in the event of a natural disaster.
In its competition, Google says contestants must have a device capable of handling up to 2KVA of power loads and fit into a rectangular enclosure of no more than 40 inches with no dimension larger than 20 inches and no dimension smaller than half an inch.
While that equates to around 1.7 kilowatts of power at 240 volts AC using an average equipment power factor of 0.85 — hardly enough to run an entire house during a blackout — a miniaturised power inverter the size of a laptop bag could perhaps provide several times the power for off-grid capabilities.
That’s far smaller than the LEAF2Home vehicle to home power inverter device currently offered by Nissan for its Japanese domestic customers.
Like the shrinking world of the microprocessor, shrinking power electronics will not only make things more compact, but more portable and usable too. And the smaller power inverter electronics get, the more likely we’ll see higher power inverters in things like electric cars and in our home.
And that can only be a good thing for everybody.
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