Manipulating the sine wave of electricity with software


Smart electricity startup Amber just signed a significant agreement with German electronics manufacturing giant Infineon to bring its technology closer to market. Amber’s tech is a solid state solution for managing and controlling electricity, including transforming AC to DC.

That makes electricity software controllable: a 100-year leap in technology.

“By controlling the sine wave electricity and you can chop it and dice it and slice it and you can manipulate it and you can even turn it to a straight line DC by with the elimination of electrolytics, magnetics, transformers, relays, rectifiers … that’s mind-boggling to a lot of electrical engineers,” says founder and CEO Thar Casey in the most recent TechFirst with John Koetsier.

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Full transcript: Amber is making electricity programmable, safe, smart

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: Amber is reinventing how we use electricity. In some sense, they’re putting the ‘I’ in IoT or the ‘Smart’ in Smart Home. We’ve talked before, but I’m super happy to have Thar Casey, the CEO and founder of Amber Solutions — as well as Steve Bakos, senior director, Switching Power at Infineon — to chat about a new partnership and relationship between those two companies. Thar, maybe let’s start with you. Give us a sense, recap what Amber does. 

Thar Casey: So, John, thank you again for having me over. I appreciate the time that you’re taking. Yeah, as a founder of a company, I’m always going to say Amber is a very special company, of course. 

John Koetsier: Very special, most special in the world, absolutely. [laughter]

Thar Casey: What we did, we found a way to manipulate and control the sine wave of electricity through software, through some key fundamental technologies, and they happen to be, of course — which is very, very critical — in solid state, not electromechanical, and it has a complete path to silicon.

And by controlling the sine wave electricity, and you can chop it and dice it and slice it, and you can manipulate it, and you can even turn it to a straight line DC with the elimination of electrolytics, magnetics, transformers, relays, rectifiers — that’s mind-boggling to a lot of electrical engineers, like this is impossible.

How do you do that?

Well, we found a way to extract DC directly from AC main without the conventional way of converting AC to DC … we don’t. We extract it directly from AC main.

So, with that, in addition we came up with AC switching, eliminating relays, eliminating all the electromechanical switching. We will mimic that inside solid state solution, using in this case Infineon’s technology, MOSFETs and microcontrollers, and the combination of that now we have technologies that can disrupt the electrification infrastructure of buildings out there and beyond. 

John Koetsier: So, to take that down to something that somebody might understand is in their house that is cool, I mean, you’re taking what is massively bulky — transformers in some cases — you’re taking what is basically 100-year-old technology of flicking a switch and moving something physically, so metal touches metal and current flows, putting that in a very small package and adding tons of intelligence.

So you can add all kinds of intelligence about what’s going on in the environment in terms of heat, in terms of pressure, temperature, in terms of air quality — all that stuff, in a very small package distributed throughout the entire home or business, correct? 

Thar Casey: John, you said it! You nailed it, absolutely correct. The form factor is important and adding the intelligence. Two different types of intelligence: one intelligent that it’s gonna go inside the firmware where you can upgrade the firmware of that hardware and you can adjust it, then and change it to manipulate to do all these things.

And then the second part of the intelligence, all these variety of different sensors for the environment, for the light, temperature, humidity, all of these things. So you’re a hundred percent correct, yes. 

John Koetsier: Amazing. Imagine that, you build infrastructure and people are living in infrastructure right now that was built 50 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and being able to upgrade that with software. Well, let’s talk about what you’re doing right now.

There’s a new announcement, you’re brokering a relationship with Infineon, which is not a small company; we’re talking 40-50,000 employees, headquartered in Germany, silicon manufacturing, they make the stuff that goes in the stuff in a lot of cases. What’s that new announcement? 

Thar Casey: Well, Infineon is a visionary company, very solid, good strong reputation out there in the industry from being a silicon company, semiconductor company, and they like cutting-edge technologies.

We are using their components to develop our technology. So what we did, John, we took our time a little bit to establish a strong relationship with 25+ product manufacturing companies before we went to the semiconductor companies like Infineon to demonstrate our cool technology. Because at the end of the day, they’re going to be very, very critical on how we are using their components and doing magic with it. So they’re going to look at it under the microscope a lot more than the product manufacturing company where we can build a product for them in this case.

So when we went to Infineon and we demonstrated this technology to them, of course in the beginning they were a little bit skeptical — can you really do it?

And then when they took their time, and then they started to look under the hood and they started to test the technology in their facilities, they came to a conclusion that this is a cutting-edge technology. And very quickly, with Steve and his team, they start taking this across the whole company where we are in discussions right now with about five, six different divisions within Infineon who’s showing interest in our technology, not only for the purpose of productizations towards the product world, but also for their own technologies that they can take our chip and put it inside it and start marketing it to their own customer base.

So this partnership it’s going to be a lot broader than you think as just a one-to-one relationship, but it’s actually more like one to five or six within Infineon because they’re such a large prestige company.

John Koetsier: Very cool. Let’s bring in Steve here. Thank you for joining us, Steve, as well. And talk to me about Amber, what you saw there and how that relationship kicked off, and why you were interested and excited about it.

Steve Bakos: Yeah, thank you, John, I appreciate it. Nice to meet you.

So, look, Amber is a company that caught our eye a while back. Their technology is aimed at a market that’s of great interest to us, right? Opening up a new market for how our MOSFETs is, you know, when you’re the market leader, you’re looking for areas to grow. This is one area we think we’re just some green field.

And certainly, Amber’s technology caught our eye with respect to the form factor that they can do the functions in, and cost potential, and this idea of taking this DC voltage off of the AC mains without magnetics in a very small form factor is compelling. It’s frankly one of the challenges that this market’s had to adopt solid state devices to replace the electromechanicals.

There’s a few others, but that’s one of them, right? You’ve got a fixed space in a wall plug or box or circuit breaker, and if you open it up today they’re pretty full, not much room in there. So, replacing those bulky magnetics with solid state components and being able to power them properly, these microcontrollers and other low voltage devices, you know,  they need a separate power supply and that’s — Amber has demonstrated the capability of doing that very cost-effectively in a small form factor.

So it opens up a lot of avenues, and so we’ve got a lot of technology we can bring to bear in this discussion. That’s what Thar referred to with all these different discussions going on with, within the company, 

John Koetsier: Steve, contextualize that for a second. Why is that important to take AC and make DC?

Steve Bakos: Well, if you want to add intelligence to anything, it implies you’ve got a microcontroller or some other smart engine, maybe an FPGA with state machine, etc. to do those smarts, right, to monitor something, to report back through a communication link, or WiFi, or Bluetooth, Zigbee, whatever.

All those are low voltage devices; all those take, you know, typically 3 volts, some take 5 volts, maybe 2.5, but we’re not talking 110 volts AC, this is 5 volts and below DC. And you’ve got to create that for those devices or else they will—

John Koetsier: Fry?

Steve Bakos: — they will fail. They will fry, you’ll have smoke.

So doing that, and people can do that today; people take AC to DC all day long, it’s been happening for a long time, but it requires magnetics and capacitors and your traditional circuit to do that. And those things at these frequencies take up space because they switch slow frequencies and they’re bulky. And, as I said, in these environments you don’t have much space in your outlets, in your plugs, and your circuit breakers; there’s just no room for that.

So, yes, it can be done, but it’s just not practical given what the market’s expecting and what we all have in our homes. So, with their technology, it looks very promising.

So  we’ve been working with them, we’ve been evaluating it with them, helping to, you know, trading ideas of how to improve it. And it’s been a wonderful little partnership and we’ve been looking forward to helping this market accelerate.

This market is going to happen. Solid state devices will replace these electromechanical devices in the future. It’s going to happen … and we’re trying to make it happen sooner, right?

And of course we want it with our parts, our stuff if you will, and someone else’s, and Amber’s been so far a wonderful company to work with and we’re excited at the potential here. 

John Koetsier: So, if you’re not an electrical engineer you don’t think about this stuff, right? And I’ll open this up to all of us right now. If you’re not an electrical engineer, you don’t think about this stuff. You flip a switch and it works. You turn the power switch on the TV, on the remote and it jumps on.

But I mean, this was a big deal in the early days of electricity; would it be AC, would it be DC. And Tesla, Nikola Tesla had one opinion, right? And who’s the other guy, not Graham Bell but … give me a clue. Come on, you guys are the experts … they were fighting over AC and DC. Who was it? Oh, he’s doing a Google search. I think it was Edison. 

Thar Casey: Yeah, of course, right. 

John Koetsier: Edison wanted to do DC and he thought that was the best way to go. And eventually we found out if we want to transmit electricity over long distances, we need to do AC because loss is too great with DC here, right? So, okay, so we did that.

But then everything that we use in our homes that uses electricity does use DC, correct?

Steve Bakos: Yes. 

John Koetsier: And so we actually need to take this AC and transform it to DC, and that’s why we have these big blocks on our little cords. That’s why our chargers are so bulky and everything like that. You’re saying this can do away with that entirely, correct? 

Thar Casey: Not totally, entirely. Some of these things are not focused for us right now. We’re focusing on the low-hanging fruit.

The low-hanging fruit is what I would call it in here is the IoT market, the outlets, the switches, the circuit breakers, these smoke detectors, carbon monoxide sensors, all of these things that we have around us, okay. These are in the, let’s say, two watt, three watt, five watt. That’s the sweet kind of a spot for Amber right now.

When you get into a charger, let’s say for a monitor or for a computer, you get into the 100 watt. These are already external. Making them smaller is not going to be a very big deal. We’re going after the hostile environments, small confined spaces where the current technology doesn’t fit, in this case, where we can fit with our — the cool small technology in those spaces.

Like a circuit breaker, it’s a hostile environment. You can fit our technology in there without having to pull out everything and replace it with brand new. It’s perfect, it’s a retrofit; that’s a big market. So that’s kind of where the focus is.

Down the road? Definitely, we’re going to go after that.

There’s one more thing to keep in mind, there’s something called arc. We don’t create arc. Arc is … it’s the spark that you see when you touch, let’s say, two wires together. That arc gets generated almost constantly every time you turn on a switch, every time you turn on anything. With solid state it doesn’t exist, there is no arc. We eliminate arc. So think about aerospace. Think about places where you don’t want arc … arc is dangerous. Most fires start in homes from electrical because of arc — not anything else — because of arc.

John Koetsier: Wow. Wow. Okay. Very interesting. What I love about that is that we have a smart home, right? And so, I’ve got air quality sensors on this floor. I’ve got one upstairs.

I’ve got a few other things, and guess what the smart home looks like? It looks like a lot of frickin cords and dongles and little pieces of hardware all over the place, and it doesn’t look that smart, and it doesn’t look that good.

But if we can fit it all inside the outlet and it’s just there, invisible — it’s in my wall, it’s in my window, it’s just embedded in the home — that’s a big deal. Steve, I’m going to bring you back for a second here and talk about where’s this gonna go? What’s this partnership going to lead to? When are we going to see something come out of it? There’s such cool tech here — I’ve talked to Thar about that even a year ago — when are we going to see products on the market and what are they going to look like? 

Steve Bakos: So, from a product standpoint, I mean, Amber is working with their customer base to provide them a complete solution, right? We’re going to be the stuff inside the stuff, as you put it eloquently earlier, in those solutions. So Thar can comment really on when those solutions will be hitting the market.

What we’re doing now and will continue to do is look at our suite of technologies and solutions and products to basically follow Amber’s lead, what they want to focus on, and look for ways to help them partition some of these decisions that have to happen with as we get these technologies together inside of a package, and look for ways to optimize the cost and performance of those technologies that are fit for their end markets they’re chasing. So they’ve got — you talked about the outlets and AC switches and plugs, and then you’ve got circuit breakers — some of those, like the circuit breaker market’s going to take a long time to develop. Standards are developing now; there’s a lot of inertia in that market space.

So that’ll take some time to get people comfortable, familiar with it. There’s a lot of big players in the marketplace that maybe don’t want to see this thing change overnight, right. But I think there will be others that are going to try to lead that charge, and I think that’s going to be some of Amber’s strategy to look for the early adopters. And we’ll help them follow a plan where we can optimize technology of course, and overall system costs, and look for ways to come up with products that may be specifically tailored for those applications, because the volumes are going to get quite big and cost of course is always an issue.

John Koetsier: Obviously, absolutely. Thar, back to you then, when are we going to see some products on the market with this? 

Thar Casey: We started already engaging with product manufacturing companies now. We started to identify the PRDs and we started identifying the quantities, the products that they want, the specifications.

We’re hoping in this case by sometime next year, we will have signed some contracts with these companies in the form factor of a board, okay, for validations, testings and start to design and everything, while we are working on the siliconization of that technology. Then when the silicon is ready, then you will basically drop a silicon in there, and then accelerate the go-to-market for 2023. And that’s kind of the goal right now.

I’m hoping that the silicon shortages and all these problems right now will not be an affect on us, but you know what, we’re going to do the best we can. But we survived COVID. You and I had our meeting in COVID and we’ve done well since then, and I’m hoping that while we’re going through this silicon shortage right now, we can survive that too.

But we’re looking at 2023 for productization. 

John Koetsier: It’s almost like this innovation thing takes some time. I mean, like in the movies, you invent an idea and boom, you’ve got the suit flying in the air next week, right? I mean, [laughter] so I look forward to that because I think there’s great promise here. Is there anything that we’ve missed? Anything that I haven’t asked that I need to ask right now? What else should people know about this new opportunity? 

Thar Casey: We’ve raised more money and we have more granted patents. These are going to be things that we’re going to be touching on, John, very soon, that maybe you want to cover later on.

We demonstrated something that Infineon and other companies they said, you know, ‘Can you demonstrate, for example, an indestructible AC switch?’ Indestructible AC switch, it means now taking a solid state AC switch and it’s going to survive the most hostile environment such as the inductive load, which is the energy that comes back from the motor to the circuit breaker, not the electricity that’s coming from the grid to the circuit breaker — no, the energy that got in the motor, when you turn it off that the energy has to go back somewhere and that’s called inductive load.

Solid state technologies does not survive that. We found a way to survive that, and we’ve demonstrated how we can survive that, and we have that coming up very soon with a video and a press release; we’ll share that with you.

Jasco is one of the companies that’s considered our future partner in this case, we’re evaluating the different type of products to go to market with. They’re on the cutting edge if they want to adopt our technology across not only their dimmers and lights switches, and they want to go across other products also. And there are many other companies that they have not allowed us to share their name yet, who are showing strong interest in go-to-market with us.

So, since we talked, you and I, we’ve signed an additional seven or eight memorandum of understandings with these companies and getting into the details of what the specs are and everything as a first step towards contracts. And of course, Infineon right now, it’s a huge plus for us right now because they represent the semiconductor parts of the equation, not the products part of the equation … and Steve is a great champion, to be honest. 

John Koetsier: Wonderful. Well, I want to thank you for taking this time. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of this. I think it gets more and more important as we go forward. I mean, you mentioned, we mentioned off the top before we even started recording that we’re going through a heat wave right now on the West Coast in Canada and the Northwest of the U.S., and guess what?

The grid of the future is probably very complicated with lots of different solar all over the place; some of the solar coming into your house, some of the grid stuff, and the smarter we can get for componentry, the better. I look forward to seeing it.

Thar Casey: Thank you, John. Thank you for your time, sincerely. Thank you again. 

Steve Bakos: Yes, thanks, John. 

John Koetsier: Thanks, Steve.

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