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Google's investment in Transphorm could be good news for electric cars

Google said today it had invested in a startup called Transphorm, whose power-conversion efficiency technology could some day help create more efficient electric cars.

The company’s technology can reduce by up to 90 percent the power lost when one form of energy is converted to the other (say, from AC — alternating current — to DC, direct current). Hybrid and electric car drives also convert electricity from AC to DC, so the Transphorm’s technology could one day be used to make electric vehicles and hybrids more efficient, said CEO Umesh Mishra in an interview with VentureBeat.
“The efficiencies that we offer translate directly to advanced efficiencies in [electric vehicle] drives,” Mishra said.

The technology could be used to extend the range of cars with the same size battery used in electric cars today, or by reducing the size of the battery for a lighter car with the same range that current electric and hybrid cars have.

All-electric cars right now like the Nissan Leaf (pictured, bottom) typically go about 100 miles on a single charge, and plug-in hybrids like the Toyota Prius Plug-In (pictured, top) or the Chevrolet Volt can go anywhere from 13 to 50 miles before switching over to gas, depending on the automaker and design. While there’s interest in public car chargers, consumers are still concerned about the range of cars.

Battery cost, life and range are major issues in electric car adoption, and some argue that there are inherent limits to battery technology and advancements will be difficult. Major automakers are looking to expand lineups to compete in the green car market, and battery advancements are part of the plan — GM, for example, has invested in battery startups Envia and Sakti3. If car makers can tackle the range problem with power conversion and essentially skirt the battery obstacles, it could be a game changer.

The advancements won’t be happening tomorrow or even this year, though. Mishra sees it as a future market for the company.

“We are going to start working on it soon. But I believe it will take three years to five years before it becomes something the automotive sector will have the stomach for,” Mishra said. “But it’s a hugely attractive thing. … People in that sector completely understand the value proposition. We just have to work with them to get there.”

Right now, Transphorm is focused on other target markets, which include solar panel inverters, industrial motors (like the ones found in elevators) and data centers. Transphorm’s innovation is in its switching devices and module design. The company embeds power conversion devices in circuits and modules specifically designed for use in segments like solar inverters and industrial motors, so it’s not a plug-and-play product, which Mishra says others have tried in the past. Gallium nitride is part of Transphorm’s equation — it’s a fairly new material commonly used in LED lighting and is “ideal power switching material,” Mishra said, because it is a low-resistance material that can simultaneously hold off large voltage. Power-conversion devices are traditionally made using silicon.

Transphorm has raised a total of $38 million (including a $20 million round disclosed today); its backers include Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, Foundation Capital and Lux Capital.

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