Small, but oh my!

Gallium nitride in power electronics

Micro drives are used to automatically move, position, or process things. Thanks to new power electronics, they have become true dwarfs, measuring only a few centimeters in size.

“We’re seeing growing demand for micro drives, especially in the low-power range,” says Johannes Fürst, a project manager with Siemens Digital Industries (DI). “Servo drive systems for low voltages, that is, extra-low voltages of 24 or 48 volts, must ensure precise movements, should have a small footprint, and need to meet high safety standards.” Siemens recently began offering a new generation of mini drives. The top-performing solution is currently only two centimeters wide and requires no additional cooling.

The converter as the key component

These types of micro drives are making crucial new developments possible in power electronics. The converter is an important component of drives. Converters transform AC voltage – its waveform, frequency, and amplitude. Exact AC voltage, which can be accurately adapted in fractions of a second, is required to allow the precise control of motors.

“Instead of the semiconductors used up to now, silicon (Si) and silicon carbide (SiC), we’re using gallium nitride (GaN) in the new generation of Siemens converters, a material that has previously not been used for semiconductors in drive technology,” Fürst says. “In our development work, we collaborate closely with research colleagues (Siemens Technology).”

The idea of an open innovation competition

A few years ago, Siemens researchers presented Tapas, their first IoT-capable, software-controlled universal converter based on gallium nitride. Although Tapas’ versatility is clear, no specific applications existed at the time. This led to the launch of the Tapas Community Challenge in 2018, an open innovation competition, where creative minds from all over Europe were given this new hardware and invited to use it in their work and research activities. The competition was a resounding success. Several thousand Tapas boards were distributed, and more than 200 ideas, some of them enormously creative, were submitted in the areas of energy, audio, healthcare, drives, material analysis, and much more.

The new semiconductor achieves a breakthrough in drive technology

“GaN permits entirely new applications, and the challenge brought about a breakthrough in drive technology for the new semiconductor,” says Andreas Gröger of the Siemens Technology department. An expert in power electronics and electrical storage, he was involved in initiating the contest and in promoting further development with the factory automation technology of Digital Industries. Fürst also expresses satisfaction: “This allows us to offer customers a product that can be easily adapted to their requirements in terms of modularity, scalability, and IoT capability. Of course, it also fits with the Siemens Simatic and MindSphere products.”   

Sandra Maria Wild, Oktober 2020

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