Imagine you needed a glass of water and the only way to fill it up was from a fire hydrant with a big, clunky valve. Sure, you'd get that glass filled with water—but the street would be filled as well.
"In the good old days, transistors that turned on and off energy were as clunky as that big valve on the fire hydrant," says Alex Lidow, CEO of International Rectifier. Lidow and Tom Herman changed all that in 1978 with the HEXFET power MOSFET. Together they developed an extremely fast valve to turn on and off the water, i.e., energy, one drop at a time so you could fill up your cup without wasting any. The end result has been an entirely new world of energy-conserving appliances.
At the urging of his father (who founded International Rectifier) to focus on semiconductors, Lidow attended Caltech. "My first class was with James W. Mayer, a most inspiring professor. I fell in love with his subject—semiconductors," says Lidow. After graduation, Lidow proceeded to Stanford for further studies in semiconductors.
It was there, explains Lidow, where a "catalytic event happened." Professor Dick Swanson "asked if we knew what made his eyeglasses cost what they cost. He said it was the energy it took to make them and bring them to us. Energy had to melt the glass and create the frames. Energy heated the store where they were sold. Energy refined the gas running the worker's car." Geopolitics sets the price, adds Lidow, yet the cost of everything is directly tied to the cost of energy.
Lidow and classmate Tom Herman realized there was a way to make a big impact on energy conversion. In the mid-1970s, energy was electrically converted via a linear power supply, linear amplifiers, and electromechanical motor drives. The problem was that there was no way to adjust the energy load. Excess energy was being burned off as heat.
So, Herman and Lidow made a pact to work on this problem. Herman, who was ahead of Lidow in school, went to International Rectifier to work on field-effect transistors (FETs) "because they could switch energy quickly." Lidow followed in 1977.
They used FETs to replace linear power conversion with switch-mode power conversion. It increased efficiency from 30% or 40% to 80% and 90%. Then they decided to use MOSFETs, metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors.
"Herman," says Lidow, "really deserves more of the credit for MOSFETs than I." Herman is currently Director of IC Technology Development at International Rectifier. He led the development and design in all aspects of semiconductor products, applications, devices, processing, manufacturing technologies, and software development.
In November 1978, they came out with the MOSFET. "It was a pretty good transistor," says Lidow. Then Tom had a flash of insight. "If we applied a geometric structure like a honeycomb to the silicon chip, we could pack a lot more power-handling capacity into a small space. That actually improved the chip by a factor of four. It was enough to change the power MOSFET from a premium/unique product to one that could address the needs of the entire marketplace. It would be like making a Cadillac at the cost of a VW. First conceived in late 1978, it was introduced on June 9, 1979. It just took off from there. Today, it is a $5 billion marketplace," he explains.
"But that's the beginning of the story rather than the ending. Once we enabled switching power conversion, it opened up a whole world of opportunity," says Lidow.
"People around the world use 404 quadrillion BTUs of energy each year," says Lidow. "That's what sets the global standard of living. We spend it making cars, making glasses, growing food. If we could do more with the same amount of energy, we could live better."
He's now driven by a mission to cut energy usage by 20%—and do it without increasing the cost of products. The only way manufacturers and consumers will buy into energy-saving technology is if there is no increase to the cost of products, explains Lidow.
So, Lidow's International Rectifier took the MOSFET, took high-performance analog circuits, added specialty software, and created variable-speed motors. "The trick was to deliver variable-speed motors at no extra cost to the consumer, but allow us to make a profit," says Lidow, and that's being accomplished.
Washing-machine manufacturers have done it by totally redesigning the product. They designed a washing machine with added benefits desired by the consumer: silent motors, gentler washing, and higher spin speeds. Simultaneously, "it saves more than half the original energy cost," says Lidow.
He's working to do the same in transportation. The Toyota Prius hybrid was built from the ground up with energy-saving technology. "Its $20,000 sticker is the best regardless of the fuel, so your payback starts the day you buy it," compared to the Honda that charges an extra $3000 for the hybrid option, he explains. Today, the fuel savings are 30%, but he's working to get it to 50% of the neutral cost.
In addition to saving power consumption, Lidow's other passion is education. He's working through the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University on a project called the East Palo Alto Stanford Academy for middle school students. Through that program, volunteers tutor and mentor students individually. In addition, IR is partnering with Lawndale High School in a low-income neighborhood. "We are working both to improve that school and create a model partnership that other schools and companies can follow," says Lidow. In addition, he funds specialized technology education in elementary schools and is a trustee at the California Institute of Technology.