Electronic Design

Off To APEC 2009

The Advanced Power Electronics Conference and Exhibition (APEC) kicks off on Sunday, February 15, at the Wardman Park Marriott in Washington D.C. It runs through Thursday, February 19. I'm off at the crack of dawn on Sunday, in order to get to D.C. just after sundown. The nice thing though, is that I have only a $2.55 Metro ride (plus a short walk) to the hotel from Washington National airport.

This will be my fourth APEC pilgrimage. I' m coming up on my fifth anniversary with Electronic Design, on this Analog/Power beat, and another APEC is cause for reflection. When I picked up the reins from my predecessor David Morrison, I had the naïve idea that the analog part of the gig would be more interesting than the power part. No way! For one thing, it isn’t really possible to separate the two disciplines. Despite that, power is bubbling with change, innovation, and industrial intrigue. From the nanoscale of energy harvesting to the megascale of powering the data center (and now, the “Smart Grid”), it's a happening place.

MicroMouse Returns
There's even an old friend making an appearance at APEC–the MicroMouse Contest–although the one I recall best took place at the IEEE Electro show in New York. In case you aren’t familiar, the MicroMouse Contest challenges contestant to build a mechanical mouse with a microcontroller brain that can learn a maze quickly and then re-run it faster than competing mice. I took part in the very first MicroMouse contest, back in 1978. Microcontrollers were in their infancy and seeking to prove their potential. Back then, I was doing PR at Tektronix and Texas Instruments; and Electronic Design's Roger Allan was working for IEEE Spectrum. He had come up with the idea of the contest, for which TI would supply free microcontrollers to participants. I was involved because Tek was providing the grand prize—a new oscilloscope.

The wonder of it all was that the contest would be judged and the prize awarded by Claude Shannon! If that seems surprising, think about it in terms of the mouse problem being an analog of a packet-routing problem. In fact, the jaw-dropping surprise of the contest was that Shannon brought with him, from the cellars of Bell Labs, a mouse maze that he had constructed in the early '50s. It was wood, had movable partitions, and it was run by a mouse on wheels. What was different was that the mouse was not self-propelled – there was an X-Y drive under the floor of the maze and a magnet in the belly of the mouse that followed another magnet on the drive – and the logic consisted of telephone relays, rather than gates on a microcontroller. But given that, Shannon's mouse demonstrated the ability to learn the maze and run it straight through afterward.

That first MicroMouse competition happened not quite 30 years after Bell Labs built its mouse, and this year’s MicroMouse is taking place 31 years later after its inception. If you're at the conference on Monday night, stop by the hotel's Delaware Ballrooms to see what's been happening in the years between.

Keynote Lecture Roundup
For what’s been happening in a shorter time frame, the conference's plenary sessions, taking place earlier on Monday afternoon, should be interesting. They start off with the familiar face of Carl Blake, reporting on the Power Supply Manufacturers Association (PSMA) roadmap. The roadmap looks ahead two to five years, so Blake will be addressing both the economic picture and the evolution of technology. Given the emphasis on greening the data center and the grid, power could be in a stronger economic position than the rest of the industry, so the PSMA's vision should be instructive.

Along those same green lines, Blake will be followed by Andrew Fanara, from the EPA. Fanara leads the team developing Energy Star product specs. If you want to sink your teeth into something more technical, the next speaker will be MIT's David Perreault, talking specifically about actual switch-mode power supplies that run at 110 MHz, and the future of supplies that switch at rates from 30 to 300 MHz. Perreault will be followed by John Weil, addressing system designers and talking about all the things in addition to raw power supply efficiency that influence energy consumption.

After that, expect a lecture from Jack Warner, from A123. He’ll be discussing lithium-ion batteries—the darlings of everyone from radio-control model aircraft fliers to Isle-of-Man motorcycle competitors—which will be, I expect, the biggest crowd magnet at the session.

Rounding out the plenary, APEC visionary Cian O'Mathuna, from Cork's Tyndall National Institute, will discuss “the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for the potentially disruptive concept of power supply-on-chip.” Yep, no way is power other than the most fascinating part of this beat! I’ll see you on the show floor.

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