Power is sexy again

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD



Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD

Once upon a time electricity was magic in every sense of the word. From its humble yet fascinating triboelectric origins, where Thales of Miletus first noted amber can acquire an electric charge by rubbing with a material like wool. Many of America’s founders were also famous scientists and engineers (Benjamin Franklin’s experiments and inventions come easily to mind), and many dabbled with the unknown forces involved. Electricity was dangerous, impressive, and mysterious.

As we tamed electricity a lot of the mystery went out of it, but that mystery was replaced with a determination to develop and harness this new force in ways that have changed the world. From the radio to the 3-phase motor to the light bulb, electricity provided humankind powers and abilities far beyond that available using fueled engines and systems.

Electricity became so ubiquitous, functional, and reliable that it became magic in the Clarke sense, in that it was so transparent to the user and easy to use that they didn’t even bother to know how it worked. In the engineering community, power became a commodity and lost its luster as an attractive field, even though electricity is so critical to electronics that one can literally not exist without the other. Designers became used to concentrating on the primary systems, leaving power as an afterthought to be added when the rest of the design was done.

That attitude started to change with the advent of portable electronic devices. Prior to the laptop, the only pieces of consumer gear that people worried about the roaming battery life were boomboxes and other portable public-oriented music equipment. Personal music devices like the transistor radio didn’t draw enough power to concern the user, and watches either self-winding or capable of operating for years on a single battery.

Once people actually started to need their stuff to function every minute the devices are in their possession that the paradigm on power began to change. Battery life became critical, and electronic systems began to be designed with power consumption and energy efficiency in mind. As those devices began to integrate into the Internet of Things the need for better energy storage and power management became obvious and a matter of concern for even the most jaded consumer.

This drive to energy efficiency has not only expanded into tethered systems because of rising energy prices, that cost factor has accelerated power systems development under the twin goads of capability and profitability, with modern system providers now touting differences in efficiency measuring in the fractions of a percent. Every serious electronic design now starts with a mindset towards system efficiency and enhanced power management.

This revolution in power has also been exciting due to the advances in core tech that has made many of the development possible. From improved architectures and topologies to advanced materials and packaging, power is again a space full of wonder and excitement, and industries that never thought of power as an enabling technology are now embracing power design.