Think Small: Google Offers $1M to Anyone Who Invents Tiny Power Inverter

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SNL Renewable Energy Weekly

July 1, 2014

Want to be a millionaire? Design and build a kW-scale solar power inverter at least 10 times smaller than existing ones and the money is yours, Google says.

Want to be a millionaire? Design and build a kW-scale solar power inverter at least 10 times smaller than existing ones - with the same or greater power punch - and the money is yours, Google Inc. says. In addition, you can have a major impact on the world, according to Google's contest partner.

"Inverters are the essential boxes that take direct current from devices such as solar panels and batteries and turn it into alternating current for use in homes, businesses, and cars," says Google and its "Little Box Challenge" partner, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, on their program registration website.

Solar panels produce direct current, but because Nikola Tesla, not Thomas Edison, won the AC-DC current war, that energy has to be converted from solar-generated DC to consumer-usable AC.

The problem is that household inverters are about the size of a picnic cooler and take up too much space in a typical utility room or garage, so people do not have as much space to store their mops, tennis rackets and lawn mowers. Further, there are other applications for inverters such as in automobiles, campers and aircraft where space and compactness are precious.

"Making them smaller would enable more solar-powered homes, more efficient distributed electrical grids, and could help bring electricity to the most remote parts of the planet," said Google and the IEEE. The latter organization should know because it bills itself as the world's largest professional association "dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity," according to its website. And Google should know because you can "Google it."

The worldwide search engine people say anyone in the world can apply. "We're expecting university teams and private companies, but we'd love anyone with a good idea to throw their hat into the ring," the Little Box website says.

What they want is an inverter about the size of a computer tablet, say 7 to 12 inches across and 0.5 inches deep, but the challenge is designed to make existing power converters at least 10 times smaller over the next year with a power density of at least 50 watts per cubic inch. "Have a healthy disregard for the perceived limits of engineering? Then you're exactly who we're looking for," the challengers say.

Like all special offers, this one is for a limited time only. Applicants must register their team by Sept. 30, and registered teams must submit a technical approach and testing application by July 22, 2015.

Up to 18 finalists will be invited to bring their inverters to a testing facility in the U.S. by Oct. 21, 2015, and the grand prize winner will be announced in January 2016.

Smallness is big deal

"These technology advancements can lead to higher efficiency, increased reliability and lower energy costs," the IEEE said in a news release. "For example, a smaller inverter could help create low-cost microgrids in remote parts of the world, or allow people to keep the lights on during a blackout via their electric car's battery."

The Little Box website offers a few tips, naming eight device makers who have promising new technologies for achieving higher power densities through wide bandgap semiconductors. "Why does Google care about inverters?" the website asks. "We believe that inverters will become increasingly important to our economy and environment as solar PV, batteries, and similar power sources continue their rapid growth."

Innovations inspired by this prize will have wide applicability for power electronics, such as in electric vehicles, laptops and phones, the contest partners say. "It also doesn't hurt that many of these improvements could make our data centers run more safely and efficiently," Google says with just a hint of subtlety.

Google has committed more than $1 billion to wind and solar projects, with a stated long-term goal to power all of its operations with renewable energy. That includes $280 million to a SolarCity Corp. fund that helps provide innovative financing for residential solar projects, the company says on its website. It has also invested $100 million into a $250 million fund with SunPower Corp. to finance residential solar installations for thousands of homeowners across the U.S. and invested $75 million to create a fund with Clean Power Finance to help up to 3,000 homeowners go solar.

Google has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in utility-scale solar and wind installations in Texas, California, Arizona, Iowa and South Africa.

As for the IEEE, it is interested in efficient conversion and control and condition of electric power as well as "advancing technology for humanity." The institute, through many of the world's leading corporations, foundations and individuals, has sponsored awards for many years. To get technical about it, the IEEE Power Electronics Society arm is sponsoring the Little Box Challenge, the organization's news release said.

"By participating in this challenge, members of industry and academia can play a pivotal role in a technological innovation that could have a major impact on the world," IEEE Power Electronics Society President Don Tan said.

What's the catch?

You might guess that Google wants to make public "some or all of" the competing teams' documents that outline key innovations to problems that currently limit high power density in converters. Google said it is not requiring any intellectual property or licenses be granted except a nonexclusive license to be used for testing the inverter and publicizing the prize.

"We only want to show the world what techniques are possible in creating a new generation of power electronics," Google said.

As for thoughts of sharing the glory or prize money among teams, forget about it. You can only be on one team, and any promises to share prize money will disqualify the contestants involved. As for how team members divvy up the prize, that is their business.

Registering applicants must at least attempt to answer a few questions in 250 words or less to indicate what innovations they think could help enable a very high power density. The questions include:

  • How will you reduce the volume required to suppress the 120 Hz input ripple current and voltage on the DC side?
  • What strategies will you use to reduce the size of the components needed in the DC-AC stage?
  • How will you deal with the heat generated?
  • Are there any new or nonstandard devices (e.g. nonsilicon) and switching frequencies or topologies you envision using in your design?
  • How will you deal with electromagnetic interference generated by the device to conform to FCC Part 15 B?

Visionaries take note: Tesla, who invented the first AC motor and developed AC generation and transmission technology, sold his priceless patents including AC generators, wires, transformers, lights and motors to George Westinghouse who used them to build the Niagara Falls Power Project as the nation's first commercial AC power company.

Not only was Tesla's reputation as the inventor of AC polyphase induction motor disputed in court patent disputes, but he died in poverty.

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