I was just chatting with the folks at Active-Semi -- a rapidly emerging leader in the multibillion-dollar power management IC and intelligent digital motor drive IC markets -- about its recently launched PAC5220WP wireless power SoC solution.
It's amazing how some things seem to pass me by without my noticing. For example, I had no idea that Active-Semi had grown to be such a powerhouse (pun intended), having sold more than a billion ICs to more than 1,000 customers. My lack of awareness may be due to the fact that Active-Semi is one of those players whose products (in the form of silicon chips) are deeply embedded and form an integral part of the products that we do see. The problem is that these parts are so deeply embedded that most of us don't even know they are there. In the case of wall chargers, car chargers, and power banks, for example, one would not be surprised to find "Active-Semi Inside," as it were.
Active-Semi's latest offering involves wireless charging technology. "Globally, 3.5 billion consumer electronic devices shipped with rechargeable batteries in 2013, and this market is projected to grow to 4.5 billion devices in 2017," said Ryan Sanderson, principal analyst for power supply and storage components at IHS Technology, in an Active-Semi press release on the solution.
But how will this recharging take place? Traditionally, we've used things like wall chargers and car chargers, but wireless charging is on the rise. The idea behind wireless charging is to have a pad (powered from a wall socket) sitting on your desk, for example. In addition to a coil, which transmits the power, the pad contains some very sophisticated electronics to control everything. The product to be recharged, like a smartphone, is also equipped with a coil. We will return to this point shortly.
Now, all you have to recharge your smartphone is place it on the pad when you aren't using it. There are no messy cables to carry around and/or lose. In some cases, larger pads might be able to recharge multiple items at once.
The important thing to understand here is that that the process of recharging batteries is nontrivial. Do you recall those notepad computers spontaneously bursting into flames a few years ago? At the heart of any wireless recharging control system will be a special-purpose IC. Several companies offer proprietary/closed ASIC solutions, but any algorithms they employ are effectively frozen in silicon, which makes it difficult for these devices to scale with current technologies or adapt to support evolving standards.
Speaking of standards, there's an old engineering joke: Standards are great; everybody should have one. The problem is that, very often, everybody does. Need I mention Betamax versus VHS or HD DVD versus Blu-ray? In the case of wireless power, we have the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), which develops and licenses Qi, a global interoperable standard for wireless charging. We also have the Power Matters Alliance (PMA), which recently joined forces with the Alliance for Wireless Power. I don't know about you, but I'm starting to feel like I'm living in a skit from Monty Python's Life of Brian -- you know, the one featuring the argument between the People's Front of Judea, the Judean People's Front, the Judean Popular People's Front, and the Popular Front of Judea.
But we digress. This is where Active-Semi leaps into the limelight with a fanfare of trumpets. The star of the show is its low-cost PAC5220WP (the "WP" stands for "Wireless Power") scalable wireless mobile charging SoC solution -- the black chip in the image below.
As far as I know, this is the first MCU-based chip in this arena. More importantly, to my knowledge, it's the first ARM MCU-based device. (The core processor is an ARM Cortex-M0.) This core comes pre-programmed with all the necessary control firmware, but customers can tweak the algorithms and add their own secret sauce if they wish.
The PAC5220WP's unique configurable architecture integrates all the functionality required to implement the most sophisticated wireless power applications into a single SoC. The complete Qi-certified hardware and software solution significantly reduces time to sample, time to prototype, and time to production.
The programmable nature of this core helps make products based on the PAC5220WP future proof with regard to evolving standards. It's scalable to all WPC configurations, including larger, multi-coil offerings. It's scalable to higher powers (the base configuration supports 5W but is scalable to 15W, 20W, 60W, and 150W), and it supports multi-mode migration (e.g., PMA).
To a large extent, we are at the forefront of this technology. Some smartphones -- like Nokia's Lumia 820 and Google's Nexus 4 -- already sport the coil and electronics required to support wireless charging. In other cases, you can purchase kits from carriers like Verizon that let you pop the battery out of your smartphone and replace it with a new battery-case combo that provides wireless charging capabilities.
Do you remember when very few smartphones supported GPS and WiFi and Bluetooth? As customer demand grew, more and more products incorporated all these technologies. Now you would be hard pressed to find a smartphone that didn't. The same will happen with wireless charging. It won't be long before just about every handheld device -- from digital cameras to phones to tablets -- comes equipped with wireless charging capability. Sanderson said in the release that wireless power adoption will accelerate dramatically in the coming years; 900 million products enabled for wireless power will be shipped in 2018.
Have you used a wireless charger yet? If so, how do you find its charging speed and overall convenience? If not, how long do you think it will be before you start counting this technology as a must-have item on your checklist?
— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting