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Ottawa's GaN Systems helps win $1 million electric inverter Little Box Challenge

Photo: CE+T Power
Photo: CE+T Power

A team from Belgium called the ‘Red Electrical Devils’, representing CE+T Power, have won the $1 million Little Box Challenge, staged by Google and the IEEE Power Electronics Society, using GS66508P gallium nitride power transistors manufactured by Ottawa’s GaN Systems.
The Little Box Challenge asked competitors to “Figure out how to shrink an inverter down to something smaller than a small laptop (a reduction of > 10× in volume).”
Inverters can convert direct current (DC) from solar panels or batteries into the alternating current (AC) that powers homes, automobiles, motors, buildings and devices.
The Red Electrical Devils first presented their design at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, which was followed up by exhaustive testing by judges.
The Little Box Challenge’s objective was to reach inverter power density in excess of 50W/cubic inch in a volume of under 40 cubic inches, which the Belgian team exceeded by a factor of three, producing a power density of 143W/cubic inch in 14 cubic inches, which according to Google, “is 10 times more compact than commercially available inverters.”
“The use of GaN technology enabled our team to reach a power density of ~145W/in3 for the 2kVA inverter designed for this project,” says CE+T Power VP of product management & new business Olivier Bomboir. “The reduced gate drive and switching losses of GaN Systems’ GS66508P were critical to our thermal and power density goals. Additionally, we were highly impressed at how reliably the devices performed over the months of rigorous, real-world testing by the NREL team.”
As demand increases for data processing through an explosion of mobile devices and the looming Industrial Internet of Things, any means to reduce the electricity footprint is highly sought after.
“This achievement is added confirmation that gallium nitride semiconductors are instrumental in helping power design engineers respond to the ever increasing need to develop more efficient power conversion solutions,” said GaN Systems CEO Jim Witham. “GaN technology clearly paves the way toward more powerful, compact and efficient inverter designs.”
Aside from facilitating electricity generated by solar and distributed energy grids, smaller inverters can help bring electricity to remote parts of the world.
“By participating in this challenge, members of industry and academia can play a pivotal role in a technological innovation that could have a major impact on the world,” said IEEE PELS president Don Tan.
Over 2,000 registered entrants were whittled down to an eventual 18 finalists, whose designs were tested for four months before a winner was announced at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C.
In December, GaN Systems won the “Start-up to Watch” award at the 2015 Global Semiconductor Alliance award ceremony in Santa Clara, California.
Based in Ottawa with offices in the UK, Germany, Japan and the U.S., GaN Systems manufactures a range of Gallium Nitride high-power transistors for consumer, enterprise, industrial, solar/wind/smartgrid, and transportation power conversion applications.
Last May, GaN Systems closed a $20 million U.S. Series C round, led by Cycle Capital Management, with an assist from BDC Capital and Beijing-based Tsing Capital, joined by existing investors Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital and RockPort Capital.

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