Transphorming the Future
By Karl Geiger 03/13/2013
Imagine that for every ten gallons of gasoline put into a vehicle’s fuel tank one or two gallons spilled onto the ground.
Aside from being an environmental hazard, the spillage would be a waste. It would be an environmental hazard. And, at $4 or more a gallon, it would be expensive. Very expensive.
Electric power transmission and conversion “spillage” loses energy too. Losses occur when moving electric power from generation stations through power lines to homes and businesses, farms and factories, and during conversion from one kind of electric power to another.
For example, the power coming out of our wall outlets, which is 120 volts of alternating current (AC), must be converted to 19 volts of direct current (DC) for use in a laptop computer. The conversion occurs in the “power brick” that plugs into the wall on one side, the laptop on the other. The brick gets warm. That heat is the conversion power loss.
More efficient conversion methods mean less power needs to be generated for use. Generating power is expensive. It uses fuel – typically carbon- or nuclear-based —and requires industrial-scale power plants to do it efficiently. Green power sources like solar and wind farms consume a lot of land, and even then generate power only intermittently.
Better conversion means the same work gets done with fewer power lines and power plants, and less environmental impact.
Goleta-based Transphorm Inc. is working to make power conversion devices far more efficient.
According to the company’s estimations, conversion losses in the U.S. electric grid are the equivalent of 318 coal-fired power plants. Losses cost an estimated $40 billion per year. Transphorm’s goal is to eliminate more than 50 percent of this loss.
Transphorm was begun by a small group out of UC Santa Barbara in 2007. Transphorm CEO Dr. Umesh Mishra, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, co-founded the company with his former student Primit Parikh who is now Transphorm’s president.
“We founded Transphorm to re-imagine what enhanced efficiency in the generation and use of electrical energy can do for our economy,” said Mishra in 2011. “Why put up with needless energy waste in every electrical system and device, when we can quickly and cost-effectively design products that are inherently energy efficient? Transphorm’s next-generation power modules cut waste, increase efficiency, reduce system size and simplify overall product design.”
The company has been hiring world-class engineers and top executives to commercialize its unique technology. It employs 75 people including a core team of researchers from Mishra’s lab at UCSB. The company had received $38 million in backing from leading venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures, Foundation Capital and Lux Capital, and just closed a $35 million series “E” round of funding in October 2012.
Transphorm’s technology is based on gallium nitride (GaN) semiconductor transistors and diodes. A diode is a device that allows electric current to flow in one direction but not the other, a sort of one-way valve for current. Transistors and diodes that switch on and off faster enable high-frequency operation that reduces the size of power electronics.
GaN-based semiconductors operate more efficiently than today’s silicon-based semiconductors and, as a result, at lower temperatures. Running cooler also means that converters can be made smaller and without ventilation or noisy fans.
Local GaN expertise is due to the presence of Dr. Shuji Nakamura at UCSB. In 1994, Dr. Nakamura invented the first high-efficiency GaN-based blue diodes and blue laser diodes now found in all in color displays, Blu-ray players, telecommunications and dozens of other applications. As a result, UCSB, Goleta, and surrounding areas are becoming known as “Gallium Valley” and are at the forefront of a new technology boom.
Since its founding, the company has focused on developing its technology. In March 2011, it demonstrated a 99 percent efficient DC-to-DC converter using its new 600-volt diodes. These diodes eliminated a 20 percent energy waste in existing converters and reduced the converter component count.
On Feb. 26, Transphorm announced its new 600-volt devices at a major industry event, the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. The company plans to demonstrate its high-power chips with its customer and partner Yaskawa Electric, Japan, at the Applied Power Electronics Conference, March 17-21 in Long Beach, California.
Transphorm’s embeddable power modules can be used in nearly every energy-intensive application, from consumer solar panels, computers and electric vehicles to industrial motors, high-voltage power conversion stations and massive solar and wind farms.
Transphorm is one of the brightest stars in the local technology arena. As the company expands business and production, look for new opportunities and new spinoffs.
Plugged In is a new monthly column focused on new technology in and around Ventura County and it will be featured the second week of every month. Plugged In authors Bridge Carney and Karl Geiger are chair and past chair, respectively, for the Ventura Section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers [IEEE], the world’s largest professional organization, with over 800 local members in Ventura County. Please find them at www.ieee-bv.org.