Amber Secures Patents for Electric Grid Management

Article By : Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

The new patents cover digital management of fault circuit interruptors and surge protection in electrical products.

Amber Solutions, the electrical infrastructure specialist, has secured new patents for silicon components used for digital control of electrical current.

The patented components are used for digital management of GFCI (ground fault circuit interruption) and AFCI (arc fault circuit interrupters), protecting electrical products from electrical power surges. In a video, the company demonstrated the patented technologies’ ability to limit 460 inductive overcurrents within 15 minutes to 260 volts per overcurrent.

Chris Casey, Amber’s vice president of operations and business development, noted in the video that the AC power grid is characterized by extreme fluctuations in voltage and current generated by utilities and off-grid renewables like solar. Hence, home appliances and electrical motors require greater protection from grid fluctuations.

“These fluctuations in combination with high heat would traditionally be catastrophic to any solid-state device that is controlling power,” Casey said. Amber Solutions’ solid-state architecture aims to improve “survivability in these extremely hostile environments using traditional off-the-shelf Infineon silicon MOSFETs. The architecture leverages embedded intelligence like software and algorithms to analyze the power and provide protection.”

In an interview, CEO Thar Casey said the company’s patented technology along with existing components can provide overcurrent protection and security for building connected to emerging smart grids.

amber
Thar Casey [Source: Amber]

Smart buildings

The new patents follow collaboration with Infineon on next-generation silicon aimed at providing digital control of electricity by embedding intelligence into a range of applications. The new technologies are billed as transforming the existing grid into a solid-state architecture used to imbue buildings with intelligence and control, resulting in nothing short of a second electrical revolution, the company asserts.

Amber’s grid technology aims to upgrade electrical end-points in buildings, spanning everything from electro-mechanical devices to silicon architectures with “embedded intelligence,” Thar Casey said. The approach “puts smaller silicon chip SOC ‘mini-computers’ in every outlet, light switch, circuit breaker” to expand building intelligence. The result would be energy savings, faster arc-free switching and surge suppression.

Inductance is a common phenomenon related to loads in AC motors or switch wiring. Wiring holds energy after power is switched off, resulting in “a very powerful kickback of energy that spikes the voltage as it tries to find a way to escape and get back to equilibrium,” said Chris Casey.

Amber Smart GFCI

In a demonstration, the company noted the backlash within traditional switches when relying on an AC power source, generating an inductive load with spurious power. The company estimated about 1,000 volts are generated. “Ultimately, those arcs and those sparks are what hurts the internal components of electromechanical devices,” Chris Casey said. “It can even weld them shut over time, or it can erode the contacts to a point where they can’t even close, creating a catastrophic failure. Some devices even use an arc suppressor for enhanced protection.”

In describing how it handles inductive load through solid-state technology, Amber implements Infineon MOSFETs, then simulates a hostile inductive environment by observing how its AC switch cycles 30 times per minute for a total of 15 minutes.

Galvanic isolation in electromechanical switches provides more protection than dielectric isolation traditionally used in solid-state switches. Still, that approach is unable to handle 1,000-volt peaks. Through extremely fast sampling, Amber’s technology recognizes voltage spikes, then performs switching before it can destroy a device. Amber asserts its approach is sustainable based on a demonstration in which it performed a test 450 times over 15 minutes.

Amber’s approach also supports intelligent detection and faster termination of electrical faults along with overcurrent and undercurrent problems. The new patents extend Amber’s IP portfolio to DC extraction directly from the AC grid, along with unbreakable AC switching. The new IP also addresses intelligent fault detection and interruption, along with intelligent surge protection. Amber’s patented technologies also comply with the UL 489i standard for solid-state circuit breakers, and will align with the IEC specification for circuit breakers to be released in 2025.

The shift to building intelligence “does not come without headwinds,” Thar Casey noted. “While design engineers now have more opportunities to build new value into electrical products based on Amber architecture, this understanding, adoption and engineering design change takes time.”

Along with addressing regulatory concerns, smart electrical components could create new opportunities for digital power management. Power management and new switching architectures also can be used for controlling home sensor networks.

Silicon architectures additionally create options for expanded functionality while extending building intelligence now used for security, access and fire control along with other forms of building automation. Proponents also stress silicon modernization of traditional electrical infrastructure allows for incorporating intelligence into emerging Internet of Things deployments.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Nitin Dahad is a correspondent for EE Times, EE Times Europe and also Editor-in-Chief of embedded.com. With 35 years in the electronics industry, he’s had many different roles: from engineer to journalist, and from entrepreneur to startup mentor and government advisor. He was part of the startup team that launched 32-bit microprocessor company ARC International in the US in the late 1990s and took it public, and co-founder of The Chilli, which influenced much of the tech startup scene in the early 2000s. He’s also worked with many of the big names—including National Semiconductor, GEC Plessey Semiconductors, Dialog Semiconductor and Marconi Instruments.

 

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