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Interview with the physicist Alex Lidow on wireless power (Includes interview and first-hand account)

Alex Lidow is CEO and co-founder of Efficient Power Conversion Corporation (EPC). Since 1977 Dr. Lidow has been dedicated to making power conversion more efficient upon the belief that this will reduce the harm to our environment from energy production and consumption.

Dr. Lidow and his team of team of Los Angeles-based physicists are innovators in wireless power transfer. Their latest development, a table that actually powers (not just charges) lamps, laptops, phones, TVs and myriad other devices on a single surface, is the first of its kind and it is set to take the technology sector by storm. With the invention, provided a receiving device is within an inch of the new surface it will become powered up. In the near future, the Efficient Power Conversion Corporation expects makers of kitchen counters, desks, tables and even homes to integrate this capability into their designs. This takes Nikola Tesla’s vision of wireless power transfer, first put forward in the 1890s, towards a real technology that will appeal to businesses and consumers.

To find out more about the technology, Digital Journal spoke with Dr. Lidow.

Digital Journal: Please explain the advantages of powered wireless technology in general?

Alex Lidow: “I have traveled far and wide over the course of my career but have yet to meet a single person who likes power cords. They are unsightly, inconvenient, and at times dangerous. And as the number electronic devices we cherish expands greatly, in addition to the battery-operated gadgets, including fully electric vehicles that need to be plugged in, so too have the number of power cords in use, creating a situation that is entirely unsustainable, at best.

“Inside the home we could eliminate power cords today by activating entire surfaces such that any device, when set down on a table or hung on a wall, would be able to extract the power needed to either power up, or recharge a variety of devices at the same time. That technology exists today and is beginning to be deployed.”

Everything on this table is powered wirelessly using a magnetic resonant field

Everything on this table is powered wirelessly using a magnetic resonant field
Alex Lidow

DJ: What other applications are there?

Lidow: “Now let’s go outside the house. You can already purchase wireless chargers to charge your electric car. England and South Korea have deployed prototype buses that recharge at bus stops in such a way that during the time spent, they accumulate enough energy to get to the next stop. These buses only need to carry a minimum amount of battery storage, thus saving cost and weight.”

Pictures is a drone being charged in mid-air using a capacitive resonant technology developed by Sol...

Pictures is a drone being charged in mid-air using a capacitive resonant technology developed by Solace Power.
Alex Lidow

“Recently there has also been developed a means of efficiently charging an electric drone in mid-air. Deploying this type of charger platform atop buildings or telephone polls, and possibly powered by small solar panels, might be the catalytic step towards implementing urban package deliveries via autonomous drones.”

Lidow also emphasizes the environmental importance of wireless power: “With power cords eliminated, urban traffic is reduced; also lowering our consumption of energy and burden on the environment.”

DJ: Which business sectors will benefit most from wireless technology?

Lidow: “GaN will help transform several industries in the years to come. The logistics industry for example, will achieve the ability to deliver packages via electric drones that can be recharged during their delivery missions. The medical industry will also see some major new opportunities via implantable electronics that can live inside our bodies but receive power from the outside. We are working with companies testing wirelessly powered heart pumps (heart pumps today need percutaneous wires that tend to be painful and become infected over time), and pain scintillators that can selectively block pain signals in patients with chronic pain. We are also working with companies with a vision to make operating rooms, as well as patient care facilities, completely wireless to reduce accidents and improve sterilization.”

DJ: How did you approach your research? What were the main complications along the way?

Lidow: “The road so far has not been easy. Mastering the materials and processes involved in growing gallium nitride as a thin crystalline layer on top of a silicon substrate has taken years of development. At Efficient Power Conversion (EPC), we started with the thesis that we could make power conversion devices that would have both higher performance and lower cost than their silicon counterparts. In order to accomplish this quickly we needed to leverage the existing infrastructure designed for silicon device manufacturing. We found a willing partner in Taiwan-based Episil Technologies, which worked with us to incorporate our device materials and processes into its existing silicon factories. Fortunately, we were able to master the materials growth, as well as the issues of process compatibility and two years after the launch of our company, we were able to bring products to customers.

“GaN-on-Si technology has only been available for about seven years, but is already producing products that are higher performing and lower cost to manufacture than silicon-based power conversion devices that have been around for 40 years. In addition, GaN-on-Si transistors are still 300 times less efficient than their theoretical capability. Silicon transistors, in contrast, are at-or-near their theoretical performance limit. With the transition to GaN, we have a long road ahead of better and better products that will enable new and even more wonderful applications.

“However, to extract more and more of the theoretical capability of GaN-on-Si we will need to invest in improved material growth capabilities. The performance of GaN-on-Si products depends on the elimination of crystalline imperfections. Our daily activities largely involve devising better ways of growing heterostructures, super-lattices, and selective growth regions that will lead to continuous improvement of both performance and cost.”

DJ: How did the technology progress from charging to powering devices?

Lidow: “Cell phones are relatively simple in their characteristics and therefore, charging them only requires about five watts of power. It therefore is a straight-forward task to make an inductive charger for a phone. Making a large surface area, such as a table-top, that can simultaneously power on demand a lamp, a computer, a computer monitor, a tablet, and charge a phone (among a variety of other devices) requires a system that has a much greater number of application variables. For example, on a table top where you could place a metal-backed laptop that acts as a shield to the magnetic field, the consumer would still expect that if they placed their Bluetooth earpiece next to the metal-backed object, it would recharge seamlessly. Larger surfaces are more susceptible to foreign objects that might interfere with the magnetic fields and the wireless power delivery system needs to be able to operate despite the random inclusion of these objects.”

Pictured is a GaN-on-Si integrated circuit that has dozens of transistors that perform complex funct...

Pictured is a GaN-on-Si integrated circuit that has dozens of transistors that perform complex functions needed to operate lasers in autonomous cars. Integrated circuits such as this greatly reduce the cost of the final system.
Alex Lidow

DJ: How do you see wireless technology developing over the next 5 to 10 years?

Lidow: “With the deployment of large surfaces that can deliver power on demand, consumers will be able to get rid of power cords as products such as lamps, televisions, computers, and cell phones increasingly include the appropriate receivers. No longer will wireless power or charging be reduced to a single charging pad on which a device has to be precisely placed, as is currently the case with cell phones and toothbrushes. I think deployment of wide-surface-area wireless power will look a lot like that seen with the deployment of WiFi in the early part of this century. We went from ethernet cables to ubiquitous WiFi, but with limited bandwidth, over about seven years. We then progressed to where ethernet cables were no longer needed at all in most use cases, as WiFi became capable of delivering the data rates needed to stream video.

“For the next five – seven years, we will see more and more consumer products that can either be plugged in or powered wirelessly. We will then see products evolve to the point where they are only offered as wirelessly powered devices. In parallel, furniture manufacturers will be incorporating wireless power transmitting capabilities into chairs and tables. Builders will make floors and walls wirelessly enabled, as well. Initially we will have to plug our furniture into the wall socket to activate the wireless power transmitter. Eventually the furniture will pull power wirelessly from the wall or the floor and wall sockets will be quaint reminders of the past that evoke humor, as does the rotary phone today.”

DJ: Has the technology been published in any journals? if so, which ones?

Lidow: “Our technology has been published in many peer-reviewed articles and trade journals over the last eight years. In 2015, J. Wiley and Sons published a textbook written by EPC titled GaN Transistors for Efficient Power Conversion. This textbook is used in dozens on universities around the world to train the next generation power electronics engineers. Another excellent book published by CRC Press is “Gallium Nitride: Physics, Devices, and Technology,” 1st Edition by Farid Medjdoub. There are also hundreds of journal articles published each year on the subject of applications. Our web site, Efficient Power Conversion Corporation has many of these articles available for download.”

DJ: Can you provide us with more details about you company?

Lidow: “We founded EPC in October 2007 and have remained a private company. Our GaN-on-Si technology is proprietary, has not been licensed, and has been designed into hundreds of consumer, medical, industrial, and automotive applications. More recently, EPC developed a new antenna technology that enables large-area wireless power. As we are in the semiconductor business, as opposed to the antenna business, we are seeking partners that want to license this technology.”

DJ: You’re clearly an innovator, what are you working on next?

Lidow: “At EPC, we are working on the integration of GaN-on-Si devices into complete systems on a single chip. GaN-on-Si can be used to integrate multiple power devices alongside analog and logic functions. By putting dozens, or even thousands of tiny transistors together on a single chip we can lower the cost of a system while improving the performance. We are already manufacturing these integrated circuits for lasers used in LiDAR systems by autonomous cars to “see” obstacles….In silicon, this type of integration is not economical and therefore there has been limited system-level integration for power conversion functions. These GaN-on-Si integrated circuits open up a $75B market for our products.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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