Today, most buildings use an electrical infrastructure based on technology from the 1950s. Outlets, switches, and circuit breakers have served their purpose well enough but have hardly changed in over half a century. Like the shift from conventional light bulbs to LED, the buildings’ conventional electrical infrastructure has been waiting for a disruptive technology that improves safety and performance, while reducing cost and energy waste. Such compelling and far-reaching disruptions on established systems are rare but one new technological development promises to make every electrical endpoint in every building… Smart.
Solid-state silicon chips have become well-known in the development of computing, electric vehicles, mobile devices, and modern appliances; now one California-based company is applying the technology to the electrical infrastructure of buildings. Amber Solutions is promising a new standard in power control that enables electricity to be digitally controlled by software in silicon chip architecture. By replacing antiquated electro-mechanical infrastructures with a smaller and more reliable silicon chip architecture, Amber expects to fundamentally change the value of all electrical products by delivering a “whole building” system, for energy management, sensing, and automation.
“The existing, unwieldy infrastructure of the incumbent, old-guard electrical grids within buildings are the main reason why this sector has yet to benefit from siliconization. The long service life and size constraints of existing form factors such as single gang boxes and circuit breaker panels have contributed to a lack of appetite among electrical manufacturers to make fundamental changes to any core component that utilizes this infrastructure,” says Thar Casey, founder and CEO of Amber Solutions.
“Traditional endpoints such as outlets, light switches, and other installed electrical products like appliances and smart home gadgets, that require large electromechanical parts to function, rely on 1950s-era technology, and have limited room for design innovations due to the need for universal compatibility with the existing form factors,” continues Casey, in an article for Built-In. “This is about to change”.
To support the commercialization of this technology, Amber, which was founded in 2016, has teamed up with Munich-based Infineon Technologies. In 2020, Infineon acquired US-based Cypress Semiconductor, making it the 10th largest semiconductor company globally with more than $10 billion in revenues in fiscal 2020 and 46,000 workers. Infineon described Amber’s technology as “a breakthrough”, one that could “overhaul the massive global electricity infrastructure” by enabling the replacement of mechanical-based electronic components seen in traditional everyday light switches and other devices with digital, solid-state controls.
Amber’s patents include two key technologies. The first is an AC/DC Enabler used for AC/DC conversion that does not require magnetics or high voltage electrolytic capacitors. The enabler is capable of producing a regulated, low noise DC output up to 5 watts. The second is Amber’s “Indestructible AC Switch”, a power scalable and input voltage independent switch, built using Infineon’s microcontroller and MOSFETs that are protected from inductive, short circuits, capacitive over-current, surge, and high-temperature conditions. The firm has also designed a silicon-based circuit breaker that can trip 3,000 times faster than conventional versions and can provide embedded surge protection, wireless reset, energy metering, and more.
“This innovation makes it simple to turn every room’s light switch, outlets, and circuit breakers into essentially mini-computers, with up to ten times the sensing capabilities and smart features of currently available smart switches and outlets. It’s like putting the intelligence of a smart phone in every electrical endpoint in a building,” says Casey. “Still, the true power of these chips lies in working together throughout a building to form a unique and intelligent power management, sensing, control, and connectivity ecosystem. By providing actionable data, the technology offers immediate opportunities to improve everything from fire safety to energy savings to indoor air quality.”
Imagine a typical office building fully-retrofitted with Amber’s proposed solid-state silicon chip technology. The building could easily apply an energy traffic controller that monitors power sources to optimally combine available renewable, battery, grid, or generator power to maximize efficiency, reduce costs, help manage power outages, and support the power grid. Then, intelligent and connected circuit breakers can track and wirelessly report energy usage in real-time, down to the socket-level, while operating 100% arc free due to the absence of moving parts. This allows for drastically more effective fire and life safety protection through power surge mitigation, accurate anomaly identification, and virtually eliminates “nuisance trips”.
Electrical endpoints can be designed to include all manner of sensors to suit the unique needs of the building, room, or occupants. Security sensors, micro-cameras, air quality or moisture detectors, pressure sensors, wireless transmitters and receivers, motion detectors, and even voice control, can be built into any or every power outlet and light switch casing. While this is not an entirely new concept, the way that Amber has developed this solution, and how Infineon will be able to produce and distribute it, makes Solid-State Silicon Electrical Infrastructure a compelling potential disruption for the not-so-distant future.
“As early as 2023, commercial building owners, universities, transit centers, government buildings, data centers, property managers, homeowners, and others around the world will be able to transform their living and workspaces into truly intelligent, sensor-rich environments that deliver exponentially greater value than the tradition or even the current simplistic smart outlets and switches,” says Casey. “This new solid-state technology transformation is nothing short of the opportunity for electrical product manufacturers to upgrade every electrical endpoint, in every building on earth, to silicon architecture with modern embedded intelligence.”