Menlo Microsystems recently unveiled its ideal switch and also raised $150 million to shake up the electronics industry.
He calls it the greatest innovation since the transistor because it can power its functions with less than a milliwatt and switch at speeds of billions of operations per second. The Irvine, Calif.-based company has raised funds to start domestic manufacturing and hopes its technology will save more than $7 trillion by 2050.
Leading investors in the recent round included Vertical Venture Partners and Tony Fadell’s Future Shape, with participation from new investors Fidelity Management & Research Company, DBL Partners and Adage Capital Management. Existing investors also participated. In total, the company has raised $225 million.
Garcia said there are a billion ceiling fans in the world. If you replaced existing fans with ideal switches, he said, you could save enough energy to take 17 power plants offline.
For Garcia, the Ideal Switch is the holy grail of the electronics industry because it’s a device that offers the benefits of a mechanical relay and a solid-state switch, without compromise. It’s tiny, fast, reliable, withstands extreme temperatures, has ultra-low losses, and can handle thousands of watts. And it can be built with conventional semiconductor equipment.
Fadell noted in a statement that electrical switches that distribute power are shipped on the order of 20 billion per year. Adroit Market Research said the global electrification market is experiencing phenomenal growth, expected to reach $128 billion by 2028. The ideal switch is transforming the electrification of while increasing the energy efficiency of the whole legacy electrical infrastructure, enhancing century-old relay technology with a micro-electromechanical switch (MEMS).
The company said it could eliminate 20% of global emissions and deliver $37 billion in electricity savings by 2050, a major contribution to the fight against climate change. The company is evaluating chip manufacturing sites in California, New York, Texas and Florida.
An analyst’s perspective
In an email to VentureBeat, Vole Development analyst Ana Villamor said there is a large market for relays (or also called circuit breakers), which are used as circuit protection in applications such as EV. (very important for the battery management system) or datacom (also related to UPS systems and batteries).
“These applications will require many more relays in the next few years due to the increased demand from the ens system,” she said. “Additionally, with the increase in global energy demand, more battery energy storage systems will be installed around the world to support energy storage. This will also increase the demand for efficient relays. Note that reliability and safety of circuit breaker related applications are of extreme importance (and more specifically, all battery related applications).
She noted that relays are primarily mechanical devices. With the push for electrification to increase efficiency, there is an opportunity for “electric relays”.
“When moving to electrical relays, one of the criteria is to have a fast switching speed, and this can be achieved using different approaches like using MEMS technology (like MenloMicro) or for example use of SiC components,” said Villamor. “Most manufacturers today are in R&D, but we are seeing great interest from different companies to understand this market.”
She said that, theoretically, Menlo’s technology is indeed interesting because it decreases the size of the component (very important in EV applications, but also interesting for other applications), and it saves energy, which is also in line with the increase in system efficiency.
“Today, SiC and MEMS solutions as relays are still expensive compared to standard relays, but high volumes are expected to significantly reduce the cost of these,” Villamor said. “Silicon relays would be slower to switch than these new options, and when a circuit is connected to a battery, it is essential to have a fast response to be able to disconnect the battery from the circuit.”
Origins at GE
The technology was originally invented in a General Electric research lab in Schenectady, New York, about 18 years ago. The idea was to reinvent the circuit breaker, patented 140 years ago by Thomas Edison, which hasn’t changed much since.
“And when you look at the physics, by making things smaller, by putting together more small pieces versus larger pieces to carry large amounts of power, there are huge efficiencies in there” , said Garcia. “And then, of course, you can speed things up. And so this was all really about the efficiency of power delivery.
The researchers chose a particular technology that was then being developed by a number of companies called MEMS, or micro electromechanical systems. It turned out that MEMS could be scalable due to their small size. But the challenge was reliability.
“One of the questions I always get is, ‘Why hasn’t anyone else done this before?’ Well, they haven’t done it before, but they tried to do it before but couldn’t,” Garcia said. “So one of the keys was to drastically reduce the energy requirements for that. By doing that, you can drastically increase the efficiency of conducting electricity.
The problem was that MEMS devices used materials that were already useful in semiconductor factories. GE researched for 12 years and spent $40 million to figure out why devices failed with a variety of materials. GE took engineers who did the metallurgy of the fins on aircraft engines, paired them with the device physicists, and asked them to fix the problem.
They have found an alloy that solves reliability problems. The result was a reliable switch that has vastly improved and improved electrical properties. The founders of Menlo Microsystems asked GE to develop the technology as a startup around 2016. The company raised its first round to prove it could manufacture the devices at a factory in Schenectady. They raised a second round to further qualify the production and in 2021 the company started generating revenue. It hit just under $10 million in its first year.
With the new cycle, the company plans to sell its manufacturing in volume and establish a factory in the United States in the interests of supply chain efficiency. The first products are coming soon.
The top three markets are wireless communications infrastructure, aerospace and defense, and power distribution, which is the largest market where most revenue comes from today.
The Idea Switch transmits power two or three times better than an electromechanical device or even a solid-state device today for wireless, and it uses far less energy in a power distribution, said Garcia.
As to why it was overlooked and took so long to develop, Garcia said the whole world has been focused on renewables and new energy sources. It turned out to be a great way to reinvent electronics.
“What ended the bottling here was the invention of this alloy. And that’s what gives us both the reliability and the electrical efficiency that we get from it,” Garcia said. “We can build it in a semiconductor process with the usual semiconductor toolset.
The company has around 50 people and could grow by another 50%. Most of the staff are in engineering. Garcia said 60% of the energy in electronic devices is lost through inefficiency.
“When you start using it in distribution systems, it will have an instant impact,” Garcia said. “We’re probably going to start in the high-end segments of the market as we expand. So industrial automation, possibly working through microgrid charging, charging infrastructure, and then even building management where you begin to be able to control every circuit in a building.
He added: “It takes this whole concept of digitally controlled power management one step further, but doing it with a much more efficient device.”
Garcia said the comments since the announcement have been overwhelming. He noted that there were more than 130 design engagements from various customers, from aerospace to energy supply. Menlo Microsystems had to focus on the basics of materials science to achieve energy efficiency gains.
As for making the devices in the United States, Garcia noted some geopolitical reasons for controlling a supply chain. In addition, manufacturing semiconductors is no longer labor intensive. So, labor rates and the economy don’t play much into the decisions. COVID-19 has also made it clear that supply chain control is critical, he said.
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