Google-backed startup claims energy efficiency breakthrough
Photo: Marcin WicharyOn Wednesday I joined a cadre of other reporters who had been summoned to the Googleplex in Silicon Valley for what was billed as the launch of a clean tech startup that has developed a revolutionary new technology.
The big reveal came as we sat around a conference table at Google Ventures, the search giant’s investment arm: super-efficient power conversion modules. What? You were expecting orbiting solar power plants or something?
But if the Southern California startup, called Transphorm, makes good on its claims, it could have a dramatic impact on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity production. That’s because power conversion modules are embedded in anything that has a motor — from heavy-duty industrial equipment to hybrid cars — as well as those ubiquitous laptop and cellphone chargers. In short, any gadget that needs to convert alternating current that comes out of a power outlet into direct current or vice versa.
That means your electric car could travel farther on a single charge by making batteries more efficient or by eliminating weight from the vehicle. Those bulky gadget chargers could disappear as power conversion modules get built into the devices themselves. And solar panels could generate more electricity if the inverters that convert DC to AC become more efficient.
Transphorm chief executive Umesh Mishra, a professor of electric and computer engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, claims the startup’s gallium nitride technology eliminates 90 percent of the energy waste when current is converted from AC to DC and back. Given that 10 percent of the United States’ electricity production is lost when converted to different currents, Transphorm’s technology could save terawatts of energy if widely adopted.
“Imagine taking the West Coast off the grid,” he said, noting that Transphorm could save as much electricity as California and the Pacific Northwest consume. “Transphorm’s impact on the planet and the business is real money. The opportunity to save this kind of money is a huge business opportunity.”
Current power conversion modules are based on silicon. Transphorm developed a process to grow gallium nitride crystals to create a material that Mishra says holds high voltage charges while minimizing the generation of waste heat.
So is this another case of Silicon Valley hype? Google Ventures and marquee venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers apparently don’t think so. They and other investors have put $38 million into the 4-year-old startup, which has operated under the radar while it developed its technology.
“Google Ventures has had a healthy dose of skepticism around clean tech investing,” said Bill Maris, Google Ventures’ managing director. “It’s a capital-intensive business with unclear exits and markets. But we understand at Google and Google Ventures the problem they’re addressing. It’s a real problem with a real solution. The ultimate impact of this technology is inarguable.”
Google, of course, operates a global network of electricity-hogging data centers. If Transphorm’s modules can slash energy consumption by computer servers, Google’s greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention its utility bill, would fall.
While Google in the past has tried out promising new technology — such as the Bloom Energy fuel cell — there hasn’t been a Transphorm power module to test drive yet, Maris acknowledged.
The startup will unveil its first products in March at a trade show in Texas and says it has signed up customers like Japan’s Yaskawa Electric Corporation, which makes industrial motors and robots.
This transformation, however, is not going to take place overnight. Mishra said industrial manufacturers have long design cycles for new products. And gallium nitride-based power conversion modules will be more expensive until they can be produced at volume, though Mishra said higher costs would be balanced by other savings as manufacturers could make lighter, more efficient products.
“This is not a just a better, faster cheaper enterprise, ” said Randy Komisar, a partner at Kleiner Perkins. “It’s a brave new world enterprise.”
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