Will Google's Latest Investment 'Transphorm' the Electric Grid?

It has been more than a century since the direct current (DC) electric power distribution favored by Thomas Edison went toe-to-toe with the Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse-backed alternating current (AC), but the tension between AC and DC is as real today as it was during the "War of the Currents." A quick check on the temperature of that little converter pack in between your laptop and the wall plug demonstrates that tension perfectly.transphorm

That pack is warm because converting electricity from standard household alternating current to direct current is extremely inefficient. According to Umesh Mishra, CEO of Transphorm, the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based tech company that just landed a $20 million investment from Google Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, more than 10 percent of electricity put on the grid is lost as heat during the process of converting from one kind of current to the other.

Transphorm has developed a more efficient electric power conversion process received which they claim could prevent up to 90 percent of all electric conversion losses in devices, an amount equal to $40 billion worth of electricity or the equivalent of 318 coal-fired plants.

How does it work? Power conversion works via rapidly switching circuits, which enable the transformation of electricity from one form to another (AC to DC or DC to AC). The secret sauce in the Transphorm approach is a material known as Gallium Nitride (GaN) that allows circuit switching at much higher frequencies than traditional silicon converters and inverters.

“There is no further pathway for silicon," Transphorm CEO Umesh Mishra told VentureBeat. "It has just reached its fundamental materials limits." 

While details about the company's technology and immediate plans remain vague, Transphorm has its eye on a few market niches in particular.

Transphorm's power modules will likely first start popping up in servers in data centers (converting AC to DC), motors that power elevators (AC to AC), solar panel inverters (DC to AC) and hybrid cars (DC to AC). But for those expecting an immediate impact on electric car charging efficiency, the impact on plug-in hybrid and electric car-charging won't be felt for a while.

"We are going to start working on it soon," Mishra cautions, "But I believe it will take three years to five years before it becomes something the automotive sector will have the stomach for."

If Transphorm does find an enthusiastic EV industry eager to work with them on charging efficiency and dives head-long into vehicle charging, the company won't be alone among four-wheel-inspired startups under the Google Ventures' portfolio, joining smartgrid and EV play, Silver Spring Networks; fuel efficient automaker, Next Autoworks; and a neighbor-to-neighbor car-sharing service called Relay Rides.

"[I]it’s a hugely attractive thing," Mishra says of entering the electric car niche. "People in that sector completely understand the value proposition. We just have to work with them to get there."

Tim Hurst is the executive editor at LiveOAK, where he covers sustainability issues from electric cars and cleantech to energy policy and the environmental movement. Follow him on twitter.

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  • Posted on Feb. 25, 2011. Listed in:

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