POWER ELECTRONICS TRENDS What were 2022’s key power electronics industry trends and events?
Power electronics devices are found across multiple industries – some of which have seen disruptive or even traumatic changes during 2022. This article looks at what has been happening, and how the chip manufacturers have been responding.
The power electronics industry is a dynamic arena which is constantly being modified by numerous trends and events - a situation which is as true in 2022 as in any other year. And these change factors can be widely disparate, as power electronic devices and systems are found across the entire electricity supply chain, from the generating station, across the grid, and to the items that consume the electricity. All very different environments, and subject to different influences.
Such change factors range from a shift in demand caused by political or economic events, to suppliers introducing new technologies that create better opportunities in the marketplace. Yet supply and demand cannot be neatly compartmentalized. For example, a green-driven growth in demand for EVs will stimulate suppliers to innovate new technology – yet, equally, the appearance of innovative products such as lower-cost or higher-capacity batteries will accelerate demand.
And events in one sector of the power electronics marketplace can ripple through to other areas. Growing numbers of EVs, for example, will put increasing pressure on power stations generating the electricity they need.
With these considerations in mind, let’s look at what has been happening in the power electronics industry during 2022.
Redoubled impetus to move to renewal energy
An increasing realization that global warming is real, and already happening, has already been putting pressure on governments to implement greener policies and infrastructures, to reduce our carbon footprint as we must do. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February was a harsh reminder of our ongoing dependence on imported gas, and a heightened urgency to reduce this.
Accordingly, Europe has responded at both EU and national levels. In November, the European Commission proposed a new temporary emergency regulation to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy resources. As well as ending dependence on Russian fossil fuels, this will diversify supplies and save energy in the power, heating and cooling, industry, and transport sectors.
In March, Germany earmarked € 200 billion to fund industrial transformation between now and 2026, including climate protection, hydrogen technology and expansion of the electric vehicle charging network. The country is also planning to boost investment in renewables for energy production, and intensifying efforts to cut reliance on Russian gas.
In the UK, regulator Ofgem has proposed price controls on Britain’s energy distribution operators and new expectations for them to make the electricity grid greener. Grid capacity will also be boosted in order to pave the way for cheaper greener energy as more products become reliant on electricity.
Operators will need to invest a total of UK £ 22.2 bn between 2023 and 2028 to help Britain prepare for a future where more homes and businesses opt for electric cars and heating.
The way energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and wave power is used and stored must be changed to fulfil their full potential. The price controls set out by Ofgem will allow for the scale of investment required without adding to customers’ bills, the regulator said.
As these events accelerate our adoption of renewable energy resources, power electronics will make a vital contribution in connecting these into the grid. To help this progress, the UK’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is engaged in research to facilitate the modern transition to renewable energy and electrified transportation. “In multiple ways, the fate of energy systems is linked with progress in power electronics," said Sreekant Narumanchi, a senior power electronics and electric machines researcher at the Laboratory.
NREL’s work extends from investigation or development of better materials for power electronics, to working components and subsystems. Some of their research relates to inverters, which interface all solar panels, battery devices, and electric vehicles and are commonly controlled to guard grid stability despite variable power coming from renewable energy sources. Inverter controls can already maintain 100 %-renewable-energy-powered microgrids, and more advanced controls are on the way to enable continental-size grids to operate reliably and resiliently with 100 %-renewable energy sources.
To meet decarbonization goals across the transportation sector, NREL researchers are pioneering improved power electronics and electric motor packaging, semiconductor electro-thermal designs, and thermal management systems.
Data centers see unprecedented demand
Digital transformation has accelerated dramatically with advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning bridging the gap to a fifth industrial revolution aided by 5G. The situation across the globe following Covid-19, which is still ongoing, has triggered unprecedented demand for digital tools and network services to enable remote collaboration and cloud-based processes while protecting business continuity with minimal disruption.
Hospitals and healthcare organizations, for example, rely on data centers to store and transmit large files, such as CT scans and MRIs, as well as enabling telemedicine technologies. The impacts of unplanned downtime in healthcare extend far beyond business disruption and financial costs; downtime could also interfere with patient care, which has the potential to be life-threatening based on patient needs.
In conversation with Power Electronics News, Vito Savino, data center and wireline segment leader at ABB Power Conversion, commented on how this spike in demand in the data center market will require the industry to seek out new ways to achieve better resiliency, efficiency, and reliability .
One approach is to use silicon carbide resistors, which have already enabled improvements in data center power efficiency. The promise of wide bandgap materials, the materials class to which silicon carbide belongs, lies in its ability to operate at higher temperatures, higher frequencies, and higher voltages. As a result, these materials transform data center power supplies to be more compact, economical, and operationally efficient.
Power design is also contributing at systems level. Historically, large, centralized alternating current (AC) power systems have been widely deployed in hyperscale applications, while much smaller, distributed power systems are needed for edge applications. At the same time, the large amounts of power used by data centers of all sizes makes efficiency a top consideration, which is why the efficiency advantages associated with distributed, direct current (DC) power architectures are becoming increasingly attractive to data center planners and operators regardless of the size of their facilities.
These DC systems offer end-to-end efficiency through fewer power conversion steps, and, thus, less energy lost as heat. They also improve scalability, enabling data centers to add power incrementally as data load and demand grows.
In terms of energy storage, newer battery chemistries enable data centers to store energy in more modular units. Battery autonomy can be added more incrementally, and at lower cost.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive maintenance offer an opportunity to use machine learning to optimize power usage within a data center. To optimize data center power usage and efficiency, AI-powered operations can automatically shut down unused servers or servers not operating at full capacity.
Tackling the barriers to electric vehicle acceptance
Sales of EVs are driven by consumers’ wish to go green, government legislation, and more attractive products from suppliers. There are still barriers to acceptance, though; these include high pricing compared with fossil fuel vehicles, and range anxiety.
One way of tackling these issues has recently been announced by scientists at Pennsylvania State University . They have presented a significant breakthrough in electric vehicle battery design that enables a 10-minute charge time for a typical EV battery. The innovative lithium-ion battery design involves a record-breaking combination that allows for a shorter charge time and more energy storage for a longer travel range, according to researchers who came up with it.
Fast charging technology makes it possible for electric vehicle battery capacity to be reduced from 150 to 50 kWh without causing drivers to feel range anxiety, making them more economical and efficient. Smaller, faster-charging batteries will dramatically reduce battery costs and the usage of critical raw materials, such as cobalt, graphite, and lithium, enabling mass adoption of affordable electric cars, explained Chao-Yang Wang, the lead author of the study.
The breakthrough focuses on a novel method that regulates battery temperature, which is necessary to optimize charging time and performance. Batteries operate most efficiently when they are hot, but not too hot. Keeping batteries consistently at just the right temperature has been a major challenge for battery engineers. Until now, they have relied on external, bulky heating and cooling systems to regulate battery temperature, which respond slowly and waste a lot of energy, Wang said.
Wang and his team decided to instead regulate the temperature from inside the battery. They developed a new battery structure that adds an ultrathin nickel foil as the fourth component besides the anode, electrolyte, and cathode. Acting as a stimulus, the nickel foil self-regulates the battery’s temperature and reactivity, which allows for 10-minute fast charging on just about any EV battery.
EVs can also become more attractive and economical to their owners through a project announced by Octopus Energy called Powerloop . This is an example of vehicle to grid (V2G) charging, which enables EV owners to charge their vehicles at off-peak times when electricity is cheaper, then sell the electricity back to the grid during peak periods, at a higher price. This not only earns money for the owner, but also eases the burden on the grid – allowing it to cope with peak demand more easily.
In December, the UK EV industry was boosted by Ford’s announcement of a UK£150 m investment in their Halewood, UK plant. This was facilitated by a UK£600 m government-backed loan, and will be used to ramp up production of EV parts. Parts made at Halewood will be used in 70 % of the 600k EVs the company will be selling by 2026 in Europe. It comes as Ford prepares to switch to selling only fully electric cars in Europe by 2030.
Power electronics devices, systems, and growth
Yole Intelligence’s report: ‘Status of the Power Electronics Industry 2022’ reflects the trends highlighted in this article. They find that the power electronics market is mainly driven by efforts to slow down climate change (by CO2 emissions reduction and system efficiency increase), and by digitalization. Trends such as “electrification”, “batteryfication”, and “automation” are boosting the demand for power electronic systems and devices.
The power electronics discrete and module component market will feature a 2021 - 2027 CAGR of 6.9 %. Such growing demand for power electronic devices comes from different booming applications, such as electric and hybrid electric vehicles (xEVs), factory automation, photovoltaics, wind turbines, uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs), and home appliances.
Yole estimates that there will be no disruptive power electronics technology coming to the market in the next years, since the last disruption – SiC & GaN – is still being settled and is grabbing share of the traditional silicon market. Nevertheless, there are several technologies that are being developed to eventually penetrate in the long-term, such as Diamond, SiC IGBTs, and gallium oxide.
In any case, many different areas - system, device, and wafer - are evolving to achieve lower losses, lower environmental impact, and reduced costs. For instance, linked to cost reduction, the shift to larger wafer sizes is happening in all technologies, going to 12-inch for power silicon devices and 8-inch for GaN and SiC.
There is also much evolution at system level towards more efficient, cheaper systems. For instance, there is a significant demand for power devices in the mid-voltage power range, around 650 V and 1,200 V. Device manufacturers are increasingly enlarging their portfolio by offering products with “intermediary” device voltage levels (e.g., 1,350 V, 1.8 kV, 2.0 kV, 2.5 kV…) to improve system efficiency and cost by a better match with the system voltage levels.
Power electronics manufacturer positioning
Yole notes that 2021 was marked by a global power electronics demand increase experienced by all important players in the field.
Within the top power electronics players’ rankings, there is a clear leader – Infineon – which is well ahead of its two main followers: onsemi and STMicroelectronics. These companies are followed by a large number of smaller power electronics players. Consolidation of the power electronics supply chain is expected in the coming years.
In one interesting development, Wolfspeed – previously known as Cree, best-known for manufacturing LEDs - has announced that it will start to manufacture 8-inch SiC wafers, with debut planned in 2024 . They expect to be first to market, and will set the standards for quality and efficiency of 8-inch wafer yields – as they say they did with the 6-inch process. The chips are used for transmitting power from the EV’s battery to the traction motors, with greater efficiency than standard silicon; this helps to boost the vehicle’s range.
With Tesla as an early adopter, Wolfspeed has now announced a deal with General Motors to supply silicon carbide power devices for future EV programs .
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