Shane Richmond: Jumping through hoops to win the power game

The White House blog carries the kind of stories you would expect to come from the office of the leader of the free world.

OPENER Shane“President Obama holds the first Cabinet meeting of 2014”, reads one headline. Another announces: “President Obama welcomes the 2013 NBA champions the Miami Heat”. Following those is something slightly more arcane – “Wide Bandgap Semiconductors: essential to our technology future”.

Wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductor-based power electronics offer several advantages over existing technology. Ernest Moniz, President Obama’s Energy Secretary, writes on the White House blog: “For nearly 50 years, silicon chips have been the basis of power electronics. However, as clean energy technologies and the electronics industry has advanced, silicon chips are reaching their limits in power conversion – resulting in wasted heat and higher energy consumption. Power electronics that use WBG semiconductors have the potential to change all this.”

The bandgap is the amount of energy needed to make electrons jump from their atoms and conduct electricity through a material. The wider the bandgap, the higher the temperature, frequency and voltage at which the electronic device can operate. The next wave of WBG semiconductors can eliminate up to 90 per cent of the energy loss of current technology and promise chips that are 10 times more powerful.

By 2030, the US Department of Energy predicts that power electronics will be responsible for 80 per cent of all electrical energy consumption in America. The need for greater energy efficiency is clear, and WBGs could deliver energy savings in everything from electric cars to military satellites.

But it’s not just in those specialised sectors that this development is significant. This is technology that will touch the lives of ordinary consumers every day. We already carry many devices with us that require charging, from laptops to smartphones and tablets, and when you look at consumer technology trends, it is clear that we are going to be carrying more devices in future and require more power.

The 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, earlier this month, was dominated by wearable technology. There were flurries of fitness trackers and swathes of smartwatches. Their manufacturers were fighting to find ways to set their gadgets apart from the competition, and battery life is a key battleground.

Consumers don’t want to charge their watch as often as they charge their smartphone, so most companies aim for at least a week of battery life. However, more battery power leads to a bulkier, more expensive device that is less attractive to consumers.

Garmin, best known for its GPS devices, announced the Vivofit fitness tracker. Like its rivals, it monitors the activity the wearer takes and tracks their sleep at night but it promises one year of battery life. Unfortunately that requires two disposable coin batteries, which is more wasteful than a rechargable battery. More power-efficient devices will provide the answer.

Of course, there’s an “arms race” effect to power consumption improvements. As battery life improves, manufacturers tend to push the capabilities of the device, which requires more power and therefore better battery life.

Nevertheless, the promise of WBGs is huge, for consumers and industry alike. The White House blog post was to announce US government investment in a $140million manufacturing innovation institute at North Carolina State University.

It might seem like an unusual item sitting among the photos of Barack hobnobbing with basketball players and chairing state meetings, but if there’s one thing the White House knows, it’s the importance of power.