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New Chips Provide a Spark for Wireless Charging

Efficient Power Conversion has launched gallium nitride chips that promise higher efficiency and lower cost than silicon.

Wireless power transfer would eliminate the need for plug-in charging.

Aiming to jump-start the stalled market for wireless power systems, chip maker Efficient Power Conversion this week announced the launch of a new line of semiconductors made from gallium nitride, a material that’s 10 times faster than silicon and that many believe represents the future of the semiconductor industry. The new chips are designed specifically to support wireless power systems such as those produced by WiTricity.

EPC is headed by chip industry veteran Alex Lidow, who coinvented a type of transistor used for power conversion systems in a range of products including home appliances, air conditioners, and energy-efficient lighting. For many years the CEO of International Rectifier, still the largest producer of such transistors, Lidow has in recent years become one of the leading apostles of using gallium nitride, rather than silicon, to make transistors. EPC’s products are already in use in telecom equipment, satellites, laptop chargers, and virtual-reality devices. Now, says Lidow, his company’s technology is set to overhaul wireless power transfer.

“The adoption of wireless power transfer is critically dependent upon the convenience, cost, and efficiency of the system,” Lidow says. “All three of these factors have delayed broad adoption of any standard.”

The subject of considerable hype a few years ago, wireless power systems have failed to take off as anticipated—partly, as Lidow points out, for lack of a universally accepted technology standard. At this point there are at least two competing standards: Qi, which is backed by the Wireless Power Consortium, and Rezence, which is supported by the Alliance for Wireless Power. Rezence is based on the principle of magnetic resonance, a form of inductive coupling that uses a magnetic field to transfer power between devices. Magnetic resonance enables multiple devices to be charged simultaneously without being precisely aligned with the energy source. Although many analysts consider magnetic resonance to be the future of wireless power, Qi got an earlier start in the market and is backed by some industry giants, including Qualcomm, Microsoft, Sony, and LG. (Many companies are members of both the Wireless Power Consortium and the Association for Wireless Power.) EPC’s chips are designed to support magnetic resonance systems covered by the Rezence standard.

Research firm IHS forecasts that the market for wireless charging will reach $8.5 billion in annual revenue by 2018.

“The remaining battles for this mass market are best efficiency at the lowest cost,” says Lidow. The use of gallium nitride, he adds, enables EPC to reduce the number of components on the wireless transmitter as well as the overall system size, and to lower the cost of the integrated circuits.

Ultimately, Lidow’s goals are much larger: he believes that gallium nitride will replace silicon transistors across a broad range of technologies, not just wireless power—including the power conversion systems that he helped develop in the 1970s. “This is the beginning of the real conversion from silicon,” he says. “My goal is to obsolete that which I helped create.”

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