Amber, Infineon Partner on Digital Control of Electricity

Article By : Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

The chip maker will collaborate to commercialize Amber's technology for digital control of electricity via a silicon architecture.

Infineon Technologies and Amber Solutions are collaborating to commercialize Amber’s technology aimed at digital control of electricity via a silicon architecture.

The main applications focus on Amber’s patented technologies such as an AC/DC enabler and AC switch for smart circuit breakers, dimmers and integration with Infineon’s suite of products. In interviews with EE Times, Amber CEO Thar Casey and and Steve Bakos, Infineon’s senior director for switching power, said the collaboration includes targeting the digital electricity control market.

“The goal is to exploit solid-state technology and move beyond electromechanical systems–the bulky electrolytic capacitors, magnetics, transformers and other passive elements standard today,” Casey said. “Our alliance aims to offer a transformation of every electrical endpoint in all residential and commercial buildings to a modern silicon architecture with embedded intelligence.”

“Our technology portfolio and customer base, as well as that of Infineon as one of the largest silicon suppliers in industrial power control and beyond, supports a strong solid-state electrification opportunity for us both. Our goal, right now, is to disrupt the market and integrate modern, silicon-based intelligence in every part of a building electrical grid, such as dimmer light switches and circuit breakers. We’re also looking for an innovative path for our technology, and aim at being integrated within Infineon’s technology with some new solutions for the market,” Casey added.

Said Bakos: “We see a strong potential for the residential switch, outlet and circuit breaker market that is ready to be disrupted. We have looked at Amber’s technology and we believe that together we can help them drive this transformation. Not only with our MOSFETs but also with our microcontrollers, security ICs and sensors that can help bring intelligence to these applications.”

Amber and CoolMOS

Digital control of electricity allows for the introduction of upgradeable firmware, and embedded machine learning algorithms in electrical systems. A solid-state architecture makes it possible for software intelligence to be incorporated directly into electrical products, electrical infrastructure, and thus, into building structures.

Smart Circuit breaker (Source: Amber)

Amber’s AC/DC Enabler and Amber AC Switch are touted as providing digital control of electricity. Enabler’s topology provides AC/DC conversion while requiring no magnetics or high voltage electrolytic capacitors. It is capable of producing a regulated, low-noise DC output of up to 5 watts.

The arc-free digital power management switch is designed to eliminate bulky relays and dimmers. It also incorporates a dual-throw, solid-state line disturbance circuit interrupter for ground-fault detecting and arc-fault circuit interrupters. The switch is built on Infineon’s microcontroller and MOSFETs configured in a proprietary architecture. The partners said their approach is protected against capacitive overcurrent, surge and overheating.

“The application environments for these products can be very difficult, and you can’t fail: the silicon solutions must offer better reliability than the incumbent solution,” Bakos said. “Amber is using CoolMOS 7 Superjunction MOSFETs technologywhich is specifically developed for these types of applications.” The technology, designated S7, is promoted as offering efficiency benefits over the load range in static switching applications compared to the previous CoolMOS series.

“Static switching application of power MOSFETs is where power MOSFETs are switching at low frequency, from a few cycles per minute to the low KHz range,” Bakos explained. “Switching power losses of the MOSFET in these applications are less of a concern, and an emphasis of the electrical characteristic of the MOSFET is placed on low conduction losses and robustness.”

Infineon also will look to optimize its MOSFET and silicon carbide performance.  “This includes reliability, packaging, and cost optimizations for these types of applications”  said Bakos.

Amber AC/DC Enabler (Source: Amber)

The S7 family of high-voltage superjunction MOSFETs boosts power density by fitting a 22-mOhm chip into a TO-leadless SMD package. The design targets applications where MOSFETs are switched at low frequency, such as active-bridge rectification, inverter stages, in-rush relays, PLCs, power-solid-state relays, and solid-state circuit breakers. For solid-state relays and solid-state circuit breakers designs, the design is complemented by a family of superjunction MOSFETs, IGBTs, low- and medium-voltage MOSFETs, galvanically isolated gate drivers and photovoltaic isolators.

“The circuit breaker space is a challenge because it’s a rough electrical environment,” Bakos added, noting that Amber’s architecture senses and mitigates surges and inductive load spikes.

Amber’s approach incorporates intelligence in the form of a PSoC microcontroller gained via a recent Cypress Semiconductor acquisition. That requires a regulated DC supply, along with requisite external magnetics and capacitors. “The challenge is that there is no room for these extra components in the extremely small fixed dimensions of a circuit breaker, light switch or electrical outlet box,” said Bakos.

Amber’s enabler IP provides a regulated DC supply in a small footprint that eliminates the need for bulky magnetics or capacitors, thereby making room for powering other features like sensors and wireless communication. Achieving a monolithic IC with the enabler, PSoC and FETs might be theoretically possible, but may not be practical. “But that does not rule out having this solution in a single package,” the Infineon executive added.

Meantime, the chip maker will work with Amber to partition and package the digital controller to reduce size and improve thermal efficiency, helping to “transform the residential power landscape.”

CoolMOS S7 Solutions (Source: Infineon)


Smart solid-state circuit breaker (Source: Infineon)

Amber-Infineon partnership

The partners said their objectives include upgrading power management architectures for specific product categories ranging from smart switches and standard dimmers to power sockets. Those upgrades will include intelligent and dynamic power management in smaller form factors.

Replacing mechanical components with solid-state technology is seen as one way of reducing costs and space requirements, both key considerations in switch and electrical box designs.

“The mindset of companies in manufacturing products such as switches, sockets, has been electromechanical for decades, or rather for over a century,” Casey said. “You have to know how much you are spending and where you are wasting it. That’s what solid-state is all about, and that’s what intelligence is all about.”

“There’s no doubt that this is an emerging and evolving market,” Bakos added. “There is a huge opportunity in improving features over a standard switch or breaker.”

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio holds a Ph.D. in Physics and is a telecommunication engineer and journalist. He has worked on various international projects in the field of gravitational wave research. He collaborates with research institutions to design data acquisition and control systems for space applications. He is the author of several books published by Springer, as well as numerous scientific and technical publications on electronics design.

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