Two major growth industries in the U.S. and globally are electric vehicles and renewable energy. As governments and businesses worldwide get more serious about climate change and the need for a sustainable energy grid, these two emerging solutions are being considered necessities for human civilization.
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But like all new technologies, EVs and renewable energy face an uphill battle. Not only is the proof of concept in need of refining to drive more efficiencies and lower costs, the tipping point for mass adoption has yet to be reached. Still, the future is clear; renewable energy and electric vehicles are on the rise.
To learn more about how these new technologies can be refined to lower costs and improve efficiency, we spoke with Dan Brdar and Tim Burns of Ideal Power (Nasdaq: IPWR) to find out how they see these industries evolving over the next few years and the role their company aims to play.
Q: What are some of the major inefficiencies facing emerging industries like electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy?
A: They both have cost and energy losses as inefficiencies. Both of those will continue to improve over time.
Electric vehicles are still being sold in small volumes compared to combustion engine-based vehicles, so they don’t yet have the same supply chain economies of scale. As the volume grows, the costs will come down, but it’s also new technology. Combustion engines have been around for over 100 years, which makes them a much more mature technology. As electric vehicle technologies mature, we'll see improved batteries, semiconductors, and vehicle manufacturing techniques that will drive higher performance, greater vehicle range, and lower cost.
With renewable energy, the costs for wind and solar power have dropped significantly over the last 10 years, but there is still the issue of intermittency. The sun is not always shining, and the wind is not always blowing. So you need to think about highly efficient energy storage to maximize the value and available kilowatt-hours from renewable energy. The rapidly declining cost of batteries and innovative approaches to their use can largely mitigate the intermittency issues.
Q: How can these inefficiencies be addressed?
A: One way is by improving power conversion technologies because both renewable energy and electric vehicles require power converters to convert direct current (DC) energy to alternating current (AC) and AC to DC. The semiconductors for the power conversion technology that goes into these products are some of that.
If you have solar energy at your home, solar panels actually generate direct current. That has to be converted into alternating current so that you can use it in your home. That conversion process from direct current to alternating current isn't 100% efficient because some energy is lost. The way to improve that is to improve the semiconductor devices in those power converters so that they can pull out more useful energy captured from the sun or stored in batteries.
The same is true with electric vehicles. Semiconductors are the second-largest cost in an electric vehicle after the batteries. They are used in the drivetrain, onboard charger and many other locations. Improving the performance of these semiconductors can significantly improve the range of an electric vehicle.
Q: What is Ideal Power’s approach to solving these problems?
A: We've come up with a really unique, high-efficiency semiconductor power switch. It really is targeting that conversion step from DC to AC, AC to DC or changing the DC voltage more efficiently. As a result of that, these products will become lower cost and more efficient. Part of reducing the cost is that if you could convert power more efficiently, there’s less thermal management and less waste heat to deal with, which allows the products to be smaller, lighter and less expensive. Our technology is inherently bidirectional, so the energy can flow in both directions.
Q: What is the overall impact that solving these issues might have on the broader EV and renewable energy industries?
A: If you think about electric vehicles, one of the greatest issues that customers have is range anxiety. If you were to use Ideal Power’s Bidirectional, Bipolar Junction Transistor (B-TRANTM) technology in the drivetrain, you could actually improve the range of the vehicle by 7% to 10%. That's a very big impact in terms of the actual useful range you can get out of the vehicle. If you want to focus on lowering the cost, you could actually have fewer batteries on the vehicle for the same range because you can have more efficient power conversion by using things like B-TRANTM. In terms of its visibility to the end user of electric vehicles or renewable energy, the impact could be substantial.
Q: How do you believe solving these problems would impact the mass adoption of these technologies?
A: It could be a pretty significant impact because the two big issues facing both electric vehicles and renewables are cost and efficiency. In electric vehicles, this takes the form of range. For renewable energy, it takes the form of useful kilowatt-hours. If you could bring a technology like our B-TRAN™ to these applications, you could potentially lower their costs and get more useful energy out of them, addressing both the range and inefficiency challenges. It makes these technologies more competitive and more attractive, and it reduces the perceived risk of both new technologies for the consumer. Overall, solving these problems could lead to an acceleration in the mass adoption of these technologies.
Q: What was the initial idea behind the Bidirectional, Bipolar Junction Transistor (B-TRANTM)?
A: We saw that the conventional semiconductor devices used to make bidirectional switches were just not efficient. Particularly with the adoption of batteries for energy storage, there's going to be an increasing need for bidirectional switching because batteries need to charge and then discharge energy. Thus, energy has to flow in both directions to and from the battery. We were looking for a more efficient semiconductor device that you could use to make a bidirectional power switch. That's where we came up with B-TRANTM as a way that could improve both the conduction and switching losses associated with controlling the flow of energy in either direction in a circuit.
Q: What is the B-TRANTM and how does it work? What are some of its applications?
A: The B-TRANTM is a semiconductor device that is used to form a switch to control the flow of energy. For example, a light switch controls all the energy flowing to a light. Switching can also be done with semiconductor devices. It gives you the ability to switch energy on and off thousands of times per second, which allows you to do a lot of things with energy products and power conversion. It allows you to be a lot more efficient; the losses are reduced because you're using one efficient semiconductor device as opposed to multiple less efficient semiconductors. It also gives you a more compact arrangement in terms of how you manage waste heat.
Applications include things like electric vehicles; electric vehicle charging; renewable energy, solar and wind power, which can be coupled with energy storage; standalone energy storage; solid-state circuit breakers for utility transmission and distribution systems; military applications; and things like uninterruptible power supply systems for data centers.
A: We're working with Diversified Technologies, Inc., which has expertise in designing solid-state circuit breakers, as part of a program funded by the U.S. Navy to develop a solid-state circuit breaker for the ship electrification program. The Navy wants to reduce the amount of liquid fuels it uses to run ships by putting a direct current infrastructure in the ships that uses batteries and other technologies to reduce the amount of fuel it must transport throughout the world. The Navy also wants to make its ships quieter and more efficient, but so far, it hasn't been able to do that because you need a fast-acting, efficient, solid-state circuit breaker to control the flow of energy around the ship.
Traditional mechanical circuit breakers are much too slow; it needs to be a solid-state device that can act on orders of magnitude faster. Unfortunately, conventional semiconductor devices are too inefficient. Traditional semiconductors produce too much energy in the form of waste heat. That requires heavy, expensive and complex cooling systems to get rid of the waste heat. Because B-TRAN™ has significantly lower conduction losses, the cooling is simpler, and the breaker can be much smaller. Along with Diversified Technologies, we were awarded a project by the Navy to produce a solid-state breaker that relies on our B-TRAN™ technology for a large-scale demonstration with the Navy later this year. The project aims to demonstrate a 12-kilovolt direct current solid-state circuit breaker at a Navy-sponsored facility.
Q: What challenges do you expect Ideal Power to face in the next 12 to 18 months, and how do you plan to overcome them?
A: I think for us, one of the challenges as a small public company is raising awareness of the technology. There are very large global automobile manufacturers, and there are large solar companies involved in the power converters for solar and energy storage. As a small company with new technology, you've got to make them aware of the technology. You've got to get through their qualification and validation processes. And you're competing against some very large players that have high volume, traditional technologies out there. I think a lot of it is just talking to the right people at these potential users, getting them comfortable with the technology, educating them about it, and getting them to spend time and resources to evaluate it.
We put out whitepapers that describe the technology. We have an active outreach with potential customers where our business development team is educating them about the technology and getting their engagement in terms of how they could use it. We're participating in trade shows. A lot of it is really just fundamental educational work in terms of outreach to make the community aware that there is this new technology that they need to be looking at.