Japan’s electricity consumption could be reduced by 10% via new chip

Japan’s government, industry and academia will collaborate on research beginning in fiscal 2017 to bring a newly developed power semiconductor into widespread use in everything from hybrid vehicles to servers to microwave ovens.

If all devices that incorporate power semiconductors employed the new chip, Japan’s electricity consumption could be reduced by an estimated 10%, equivalent to the output from more than four nuclear power plants.

The Environment Ministry has earmarked 2.5 billion yen ($24 million) in its fiscal 2017 budget for subsidies to industry to promote this project, with the goal of getting the new chip into products starting in 2020.

Under the Paris Agreement that takes effect in November, Japan is obliged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26% by 2030. The Environment Ministry views the new chip as playing a large role in attaining that goal.

Power semiconductors control the flow of electricity, serving to step down the voltage and convert AC — which is how electricity is delivered — into DC, which devices need to operate. The electricity must be switched numerous times en route from the power plant to the machines that use the energy in homes and factories, and a certain amount of electricity is lost in each step.

With conventional power semiconductors fabricated from silicon, some 5% of the electricity is lost during all this switching.

The new chip, made from a thin film of high-purity gallium nitride, can reduce that loss by 40%. The chip can operate at up to 4,700 volts.

The Environment Ministry spearheaded the effort to create the device. The development team included Osaka University professor Yusuke Mori; Nagoya University professor Hiroshi Amano, who received a Nobel Prize for his work on blue light-emitting diodes made using gallium nitride; and Sumitomo Chemical subsidiary Sciocs.

For the coming collaboration, Sciocs will participate in manufacturing the new power semiconductor, while companies including Panasonic, Fujitsu and Japanese automakers will strive to incorporate the chip in their products.

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