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Power Electronics to Improve Computer Efficiency

Arctic Sand Technologies lands series A funding to commercialize power conversion technology to cut power loss in electronics by 50 percent.
January 16, 2013

MIT spin-off Arctic Sand Technologies has raised funding to develop more efficient circuitry for computers and mobile devices, one of a few startups focusing on improved power electronics.

The Cambridge-based company said yesterday it has secured $9.6 million from venture investors Arsenal Venture Partners, Northwater Capital, and Analog Devices co-founder Ray Stata. Funding also came from Dialog Semiconductor and Energy Technology Ventures, an investment vehicle created by ConocoPhilips, GE, and utility NRG Energy.

Arctic Sand says its semiconductor technology reduces power conversion loss in DC-to-DC power converters, which are used in power management integrated circuits, by 50 percent. Its technology is based on switch capacitive techniques and allows for smaller and efficient conductive components, according to Dialog Semiconductor. It can be used in data centers, telecom equipment, or mobile electronics.

DC-to-DC power conversion chips in are in all electrically powered devices, says Arctic Sand CEO and co-founder Nadia Shalaby. A laptop lithium-ion battery operates at 18 volts but individual components, such as the microprocessor and video display, need power at very specific voltages so each has its own converter. “A typical smart phone has 30 components that need to be powered–therefore 30 power converters,” she says.

The company says its technology is done using a standard CMOS process on silicon, avoiding higher cost materials and processes. Its approach is different than existing products in that energy is stored electrically during power conversion, rather than with magnetic devices, and there is a constant, rather than impulse, current, according to the company.

Power electronics is a ripe area for reducing wasted energy. Data center operators billions of dollar a year on electricity so a significant reduction in wasted energy, which manifests itself as heat, could yield significant savings. To improve efficiency, some data and telecom center operators use direct current power distribution equipment to reduce losses from switching between alternating current from the grid to the direct current used by servers.

Advanced power conversion techniques could improve efficiency in many other areas, including LED lighting, solar panels and charging electric cars.

Startup Transphorm, based in Goleta, Calif.,  has developed power converters using gallium nitride, rather than silicon, semiconductors to improve efficiency. Another power electronics company with roots at MIT is Finsix, formerly known as OnChip Power, which is initially making more efficient drivers for LED lighting. 

The Department of Energy’s ARPA-e research agency has a program dedicated to improving power conversion in the electric grid. It estimates that more efficient electric devices could reduce energy use in the U.S. by 30 percent.  

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