Electricity is as old as the universe, but we’ve been controlling it and using it for not much more than a century. And our methods of managing it don’t differ that much, frankly, from the days of Edison and Tesla. Until now.
By John Koetsier, Forbes, 08.04.2021
Startup Amber Solutions has been reinventing how we use electricity by creating new solid-state management solutions for old electromechanical switches and fuses. Now it’s signed a deal with semiconductor giant Infineon: one of the 10 largest semiconductor manufacturers on the planet.
“We found a way to extract DC directly from AC,” Amber CEO Thar Casey told me recently on the TechFirst podcast. “By controlling the sine wave of electricity … you can chop it and dice it and slice it, and you can manipulate it, and you can even turn it to a straight line DC with the elimination of electrolytics, magnetics, transformers, relays, rectifiers.”
That may be Greek to most of us.
But it’s revolutionary in potential impact to more than half the planet.
What it means is that we’re in the process of changing from 100-year-old technology of connecting metal to metal so current can flow — by flipping a light switch — to a much smaller solid state brick that can be controlled by software.
That disrupts the last mile of technology and removes bulky magnetics, capacitors, and traditional circuits that are used today to transform AC from the power company to DC that our appliances can use.
Why does it matter?
“Well, if you want to add intelligence to anything, it implies you’ve got a microcontroller or some other smart engine, maybe an FPGA with state machine, etc. to do those smarts, right, to monitor something, to report back through a communication link, or WiFi, or Bluetooth, Zigbee, whatever,” says Steve Bakos, a senior director at Infineon. “All those are low voltage devices … typically 3 volts, some take 5 volts, maybe 2.5, but we’re not talking 110 volts AC, this is 5 volts and below DC. And you’ve got to create that for those devices or else they will … fail. They will fry, you’ll have smoke.”
This market is going to happen, Bakos said: solid state devices will replace these electromechanical devices in the future. The only question is when.
Amber’s goal is soon. And the deal with Infineon is intended to speed that up.
Working together, the two companies plan to upgrade power management capabilities in smart circuit breakers, light switches, outlets, and other product categories. In addition, they’ll be working to integrate some of Amber’s new tech in Infineon product roadmaps.
This is a big deal.
Amber Solutions is a small startup that has raised less than $10 million. Infineon is a top-10 global semiconductor manufacturer with almost 50,000 employees and over $10 billion in annual revenue.
It’s also a big signal to the market.
“This alliance between Infineon and Amber is a next level example that the solid-state transformation of our electrical products and infrastructure is at hand,” says Elizabeth Parks, President of Parks Associates, a market research firm. “The implications are significant and can help support current and emerging applications in the commercial and residential markets, which continue to evolve with connectivity as a foundation for the future.”
The opportunity is to add intelligence to devices that most people in the developed world touch every day: outlets and switches. And to add connectivity and even more intelligence to them. Imagine smoke detectors and air quality indicators and temperature gauges everywhere you have a switch or outlet.
That’s smart home on steroids.
There’s also opportunity in homes — and high-end commercial environments — because of one thing that electromechanical devices create but solid-state devices don’t: arc.
“Arc is … the spark that you see when you touch two wires together,” Casey says. “That arc gets generated almost constantly every time you turn on a switch, every time you turn on anything. With solid state it doesn’t exist, there is no arc. We eliminate arc. So think about aerospace. Think about places where you don’t want arc … arc is dangerous. Most fires start in homes from electrical because of arc — not anything else — because of arc.”
So when will we see these products hit the market?
Currently, the goal is 2023. Apparently innovation — and reinventing how we use electricity in hundreds of millions of buildings across the planet — takes time.
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