Google, IEEE launch $1m 'Little Box' power inverter challenge

Google, IEEE launch $1m 'Little Box' power inverter challenge

Summary: Google is offering $1 million for you to come up with a compact solution for transforming renewable energy sources into something usable at home.

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Google is offering $1 million for you to come up with a solution to transform a power inverter into something suitable for home use.

The tech giant announced the Little Box challenge in May. Google challenged innovators and engineers to take a power inverter, a device used to convert renewable energy including solar and wind before transforming it into suitable current for the home and vehicles, and shrink it. Entrants into the contest are asked to take a power inverter and map out a solution to make these large devices into the size of a small laptop, roughly a tenth of its current size.

In other words, Google wants someone to build a kW-scale inverter with a power density greater than 50W per cubic inch. In return, the tech giant and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Power Electronics Society will give you $1 million as a reward.

The Little Box challenge is now open for submissions, and Google says whoever rises to the challenge will "help change the future of electricity," as small inverters could be used to create low-cost microgrids in remote parts of the world. Not only this, but smaller household inverters could promote more solar power use in the home and more efficient electrical grids and energy use.

IEEE PELS President Don Tan commented:

We are very pleased to present this important initiative together with Google to encourage innovation. 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.

To compete, register on the website. The contest calendar is below.

  • Applicants contemplating competing in the prize must register their team by the registration deadline: September 30, 2014.
  • Eligible academics interested in pursuing grant funding must apply by the grant application deadline: September 30, 2014 Registered teams must submit a technical approach and testing application by July 22, 2015.
  • Up to 18 finalists will be notified of their selection for final testing at the testing facility. They are required to bring their inverters in person to a testing facility in United States by October 21, 2015.
  • The grand prize winner will be announced sometime in January, 2016.

Topics: Innovation, Google, Hardware

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  • This is a very interesting idea.

    Next door consumers can have a great deal of trouble trying to produce their own clean energy - costs and integrate that energy (with low price) into their existent installation.
  • Why?

    Why do you want to shrink it? The inverter is hardly one of the big issues. Physics is and math are much bigger ones.
    Buster Friendly
  • Interesting - hopefully it will remain pure

    Rather than being used to monitor what you're powering with it and reporting back to Mother Google. I don't however have any faith that Google wouldn't use it in the most intrusive way possible.
  • Better solution: Get rid of the inverter

    For fixed installations (e.g. in a home or business), the inverter size is irrelevant.

    The real question is why have an inverter at all. Why convert DC to AC, only to convert it back to DC?

    What we really need is a global, widely implemented standard for localized DC power distribution (e.g. within a building). Think of all the things you have plugged into the wall at your home. All your electronic equipment uses DC, and is converting AC to DC, which is inefficient. LED lights are the future, and they use DC. Appliance motors are typically AC, but they don't have to be. Many appliances could be designed to work equally well with a DC motor.
    • Using DC has drawbacks

      Led lighting designed for it would run great on a 12v system, but not everything works that way.
      Lets take an example of a 1200 watt appliance, for simpler math.
      At 120v it needs 10 amps
      At 12v it would need 100 amps
      Common house wiring would have large losses and could heat to the point of burning down the house if running a 100 amp load. Wiring for low voltage high current would require expensive very heavy wiring.
      AC power can be relatively easily converted up or down in voltage, which is why it is used
    • Another reason: backward compatibility

      When vacuum tube radios were first sold in the 1920s, not all areas had AC power from the grid; some had local DC at the same voltage. In addition, the power supply transformer, which turned 120VAC into several AC voltages, one to be rectified and filtered to power the tubes, and lower voltages such a 6 or 12VAC to power the heater filaments of the tubes (in parallel), was bulky and expensive. So, to make cheaper radios and sell them to customers with DC in their homes, the "all American five" tube circuit, which rectified the power right out of the wall socket and filtered it to produce DC regardless of which kind of power was fed to it, and used an odd set of filament voltages that could be fed in parallel with the rectifier, with all five filaments in series to add up to 120V, was designed and became the "standard" consumer AM receiver, with slight details differing between manufacturers.

      This circuit design continued to be sold many years after the last DC power station was converted to AC, but its original design was to provide backward compatibility for DC power.

      Today, so many appliances use 120VAC (or 240VAC) whether they REALLY need it to be alternating or not (most motors run on either current equally well, and heating elements certainly do, so washers, dryers, refrigerators, lamps, AND electronic devices that rectify and filter the AC in their power supply, which need the voltage but not necessarily the alternating current, can be plugged in to the standard AC outlets (or for heavy current use such as stoves and dryers, plugged in to standard 240VAC outlets).

      But yes, a home with a second wiring network delivering, say, USB voltage levels from a single rectifier to every room, would eliminate many of the USB transformer/rectifier boxes for charging and operating mobile devices.
  • Not the best solution :(

    IMO a 24V DC standard would be the ideal power efficient solution.

    Much energy is wasted both inverting and converting DC -> AC -> DC. Most devices consume DC current internally. We have a AC standards, thanks to Tesla and AC's transmission efficiency. Edison tried to fight it, with a passion... I guess Edison knew DC would be the ultimate electric consuming wave form.

    A DC standard for appliances and devices would prove most cost effective in the long run. The upfront cost of a full DC conversion is not practical at present, especially with no DC standard. The reason (I assume) Google, et al seek a compact inverter solution.
    • DC power grid is not practical nor is 24v

      The Edison plan would have failed sooner or later. The issue is resistance, and therefore heating, of a conductor increases as current increases. The ability to easily change voltage is critical. At 24v running something like a 1000 watt toaster would require a #8 cable which is more like what you see on a clothes dryer. The clothes dryer or oven would require maybe a #2 which is like the big cables used to hook your main panel to the service.
      Buster Friendly
      • I like the 24V home power grid

        Not alone, it would be a complement to the existent 110/230/...V installation.
        The idea I like is a standard to deliver DC power for many devices - smartphones, computers, ...
        For high power demanding appliances low voltage DC is just not good.
        • Retrofit would be expensive

          Doing a retrofit would be expensive for the benefit, but you could do that for new construction. Run a low voltage bundle that includes fiber and twisted for network and power. I actually did that in an old house but only 5 jacks total and that was quite a bit of work.
          Buster Friendly
    • Delivering 24DC to the home FROM the power station is not practical.

      The reason AC is so efficient is that, at high voltages and proportionally lower currents, it can be sent over long distance, and unlike DC, there is a simple technology to step up and down the voltage. The inverter is to make locally generated DC compatible to feed the AC wiring in a house, with lots of current and lots of power.

      Edison's power plants had to be within a mile of their most distant customer, probably produced about 100V, and despite extremely thick wires to the customers, those at the end of the line probably only got 20 volts or so. So, imagine a power plant every square mile in the city, and no way to network them together in a grid to share power.
  • Typical Crowdsourcing Screw-Over

    Sometimes, crowdsourcing is a great thing. Other times, it's just the latest way that corporations steal from we the people. Why should someone "give away" this device, were they to actually "invent" it? A paltry million dollars is all this someone would receive? Talk about getting screwed over. If I invented a small power inverter, you can bet I wouldn't be entering it into this "contest".
  • AC Motor Drives...........

    have been shrinking ever since I started to design them 38 years ago. You can purchase a 5 HP drive, (about 4 kW), in a shoebox size now. These are basically 240VAC 3 phase inverters. A single phase inverter would only need 4 power devices vs. the six required for 3 phase. Since the inverters use a switching frequency of ~ 20 KHz, an output filter is unnecessary since the motor itself handily converts the sine modulated PWM into a smooth sinewave. you could remove one phase and substitute a small output voltage filter to give a pure sinewave for those electrical devices that don't like PWM waveforms. This would keep the inverter size approximately the same as a motor drive.
  • Innovate to become rich

    Excellent. I applaud Google for the excellent initiative.

    In fact I have had been advocating in tapping the talent among people to solve complex problems through innovation. The Previous Government announced Innovation Fund of Rs 5000 Crores. Under this prizes can be announced to best solutions for the problems identified by the Government of India.

    Problems – People – Solutions

    Research, Development and Demonstration projects in developing countries have generated a variety of devices and systems for exploitation – for example, solar cookers, wind battery charges etc. In Innovation theory, this is a classic case of technology push, that is, technical solutions looking for a social application. Technology push innovations might of course be adopted if they happen to satisfy a real demand, or are heavily promoted. Success is much more likely, however if the needs, priorities and demands are studied before attempting to introduce a new technology or system. This is the demand pull approach to innovation. Often identifying the right problem is difficult rather than finding a possible solution. People are better judges to identify the problems and since they benefit most by the solutions, they can contribute for finding the best solutions. A novel and innovative scheme is suggested to achieve the above goal. In developing countries the Government can advertise in the media seeking problems from the people in different disciplines like education, health, energy, industry etc. The problems received can be screened, studied and short-listed by a committee comprising government officials, experts, representatives from N.G.O's etc. The short-listed problems can be re-advertised seeking solutions from people. The solutions received can be studied in detail and the best solutions given awards. To catch a fish the bait should be attractive enough. As such there should be sizeable incentive so that people can devote their talent and energies for finding solutions. As the saying goes ‘Anything can be done for a Dollar'. In this way the creative potential of the people can be tapped to the full and a thought process will be set in motion in the country.

    In India a general knowledge programme conducted by a Super Star on TV is a roaring success and children, youth and old-all alike have become addicted to get equipped with general knowledge so that they can try their luck for winning fabulous cash prizes. The Author has developed Novel solutions and sustainable technologies for the benefits of bottoms billions like Everybody's Solar Water Heater, Simple Solar Drier, Safe Drinking Water from Solar Disinfection,Energy Conservation in Irrigation pumpsets,Hand operated Battery charger, Multiple Uses of Gas Stove,Pedal operated Washing machine etc.,
    Innovation, Invention and creativity are the pillars of progress of any Society / Nation. The greater the participation of people in the developmental activities, the quicker will be the progress. A new approach "Innovative Technology (IT)" deliberately involving people from all walks of life is the need of the hour in identifying the felt needs in the developing countries and finding solutions. Such a technology will contribute to Integrated Development (ID).

    Some of the problems that need to be solved:
    Designing an effective, economic toilet for rural areas
    Designing a reliable blackboard and chalk
    Designing water purification system based on traditional practices
    Designing a cost effective multiple use solar cooker
    Use of natural fertilisers/pesticides for clean environment
    Hand operated washing machine
    Pedal operated battery charger
    Integrated solar water heaters without overhead tank
    Designing an efficient Biogas stove
    A cost effective Hydroponic method since vegetable costs are soaring

    Research conducted by several development agencies (World Bank, CIDA, USAID, IRDP) suggests that there are many benefits to be gained through the use of PD. These studies suggest that while PD(Participatory Development) projects may have high start up costs, they will be less expensive and more sustainable in the long run. These studies also found that PD projects are better at addressing local needs and are generally more relevant to local populations than traditional development projects. Community participation is also thought to increase the efficiency of development projects.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore, Andhra Pradesh,India