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Google has announced a contest to design a kW-scale (>2 kVA loads) power inverter with 90% size reduction compared to present designs. The goal is running household appliances from a small inverter, which somehow encourages more usage of solar power. (It would also be useful in their data centers.)

What are some challenges in such a design? In laptop wall adapters, the power density has been dramatically increased over time by moving towards higher-frequency switching regulators, which permit use of smaller components. Also better 3D modeling to permit packing components more tightly into the space.

Are such techniques likely to improve inverters as well, or would they present different issues to overcome? What approaches are likely to be taken? They are directly encouraging use of gallium nitride (GaN) and silicon carbide (SiC) components. Is it likely that custom silicon or other components would be necessary, or is it plausible such a design could be built largely with off-the-shelf components?

http://www.littleboxchallenge.com/

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your link is broken. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 22, 2014 at 20:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, changed it from https to http, hope it works now. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matt B.
    Jul 22, 2014 at 21:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Still doesn't work. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 22, 2014 at 21:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ The link is working now. The prize is $1,000,000. \$\endgroup\$
    – Barry
    Jul 22, 2014 at 21:47

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The 'little box challenge' lower power density target of 50 W per cubic inch translates to just over 3 kW per litre, which is a more widely-used unit in the literature.

For a 3-phase DC-fed inverter for a motor drive application, in which there is very little energy storage requirement, 30 kW/litre, i.e. an order of magnitude beyond the 'little box' targed, has been demonstrated:

https://www.semiconportal.com/en/archive/news/main-news/110906-nedo-sic-fupet-inverter.html

To achieve the required low input current ripple (which equates to a low input power ripple) whilst supplying single-phase AC output power with its inherently pulsating nature, energy storage within the inverter is required (in other words, 1+1 = 2).

A good example of what can be achieved may be found in the following paper (2.75-4.86 kW/l, 94.9% peak eff., all-Si):

http://itohserver01.nagaokaut.ac.jp/itohlab/paper/2013/ecce_us/ohnuma.pdf

(Not all the efficiency figures match up and there's no photo of experimental hardware, but it's an example of something in the 'close, but no cigar' range for the LBC). There are a number of publications on this technique or variations thereof, allowing greater capacitor utilisation than the conventional 'bulk' DC link filtering approach, which results in a significant 'DC' energy storage overhead if low voltage ripple is required.

As evidenced by the 'Pareto Front' diagrams (see also detailed work by Kolar et al. of ETH Zurich), extreme efficiency and high power density don't necessarily go hand in hand, and whilst you can get some way by throwing more silicon (or SiC) at the problem, self-discharge and gate driving losses place an upper limit on this. See Infineon's CoolMOS C7 application note ('Mastering the Art of Quickness') for examples.

There are several trade-offs to be considered here - the increased losses (and therefore heatsink volume) of a higher switching frequency vs. reduced filter component dimensions, for example. All well-understood stuff. I'd suggest that the 'clever' is in simultaneously optimising the various design trade-offs and maximising the performance of the individual components.

The factor that's not an issue here is cost (or reliability, beyond a 100-hour test). On a 3-dimensional plot of cost per kW vs. efficiency vs. power density, I'd hazard a guess that a typical small commercial solar inverter is as far up the efficiency curve as possible for a strict cost limit, sacrificing power density in the process.

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I would say Don Lancaster over at http://www.tinaja.com/magsn01.shtml is probably closer to this than anyone else I have seen. He is developing a three phase technology based on what he calls "magic sinewaves" which are carefully timed PWM pulse trains carefully chosen to cancel harmonics.

Now, I know that Google has specifically indicated single phase, however are significant problems with 60 Hz. single phase as the power throbs at a 120 Hz ( two throbs per cycle ) rate. Nikola Tesla saw this a long time ago - and saw three phase was the way to go for smooth power coupling.

From everything I have seen, I think Don is closer to an optimal converter design than anything else I have seen out there. I am not shilling for him. I am also following his work trying to build a converter myself.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wow Don Lancaster's still around? I loved his articles in Radio-Electronics, although when he started going on about website optimization I lost interest since it had nothing to do with electronics and everything to do with self-promotion. I have to admit when I read about the Google challenge his magic sinewaves were the first thing I thought of. \$\endgroup\$
    – akohlsmith
    Jul 24, 2014 at 12:17

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