The global site of the UK's leading magazine for automation, motion engineering and power transmission
18 July, 2024

Twitter link

‘Reinvented’ switch could slash industrial costs by $7 trillion

10 March, 2022

A Californian company claims to have reinvented the switch with a device that offers all of the benefits of mechanical relays and semiconductor switches, without any compromises. Menlo Micro says that its Ideal Switch is tiny, fast, reliable, can handle thousands of Watts, has extremely low losses, can withstand extreme temperatures, and is manufactured using standard semiconductor techniques. The company has just raised $150m of Series C funding, taking its total backing to date to $225m.

Menlo Micro predicts that its switches will be used in industrial devices such as PLCs, RTUs, I/O modules, soft-starters, motor control centres and moulded-case circuit breakers. In envisages a new class of PLCs with 1,000 times faster actuation, and motor controls that eliminate the risk of arc flashing.

The company estimates that replacing all of the relays used to control industrial processes and equipment with the longer-lasting and more reliable Ideal Switches could save more than $7 trillion in operating costs by 2050.

“Today’s funding milestone underscores the confidence our investors have in Menlo Micro’s transformative technology to fuel the electrification of everything and modernise the $100bn+ market for RF communications, power switching and protection devices in the 21st century,” says Menlo Micro’s CEO, Russ Garcia. “It will enable us to expand our manufacturing in the US and accelerate the development of our power roadmap to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges. We’re positioned to enable the upgrade of the world’s ageing power grids, modernise smart buildings and factories, and eliminate many of the inefficiencies in our legacy electrical infrastructure.”

The latest round of funding was led by Future Shape, whose principal, Tony Fadell – who also founded the Nest home control business – predicts that the Ideal Switch is “poised to replace every switch that distributes power. It is the most ubiquitous electrical component in the world – 20bn are shipped each year.

“The Ideal Switch changes fundamental math on power delivery to cities, buildings, homes, and appliances from EVs to lights,” he declares. “It will cost less, last longer, act smarter, and lower climate-busting emissions thanks to its energy efficiency profile. Menlo Micro is one of the biggest technology disruptors of our generation.”

Menlo Micro claims that its microelectromechanical (MEMS) technology offers advantages over both electromechanical relays and solid-state switches. While relays can handle high power with low losses, it says, they are bulky, slow and unreliable. And while solid-state devices are small, fast, reliable and vibration-proof, they suffer from high losses and can need bulky heatsinks.

The Ideal Switch combines the best of both of these technologies, and eliminates their weaknesses, Menlo Micro argues.

Compared to relays – a technology more than 100 years old – the new devices use 100 times less power (under 1mW), last 1,000 times longer (more than three billion operations), switch 1,000 times faster (in less than 10µs) as well as being much smaller. An Ideal Switch with a 20A, 240V rating occupies just 0.4cm3, compared to 71cm3 for an equivalent relay.

Compared to solid-state switches, the Ideal Switch uses 1% of the power and offers 85% lower resistance, avoiding the need for heatsinks. A 20A, 200V solid-state relay with its heatsink occupies 305cm3, compared to 0.4cm3 for a similar Ideal Switch, says Menlo Micro.

A 20, 200V solid-state relay with built-in protection and heatsink (left) compared to an equivalent Ideal Switch (right). The SSR occupies 305 cubic centimetres and weighs 320g; the new device occupies 0.4 cubic cm and weighs less than 10g.

The company estimates that its switches could eliminate 20% of global emissions and bring $37 billion in electricity savings by 2050. Its figure of $7 trillion in industrial savings by 2050 comes from avoiding unplanned downtime resulting from the use of traditional relays. It has outlined its arguments in a free White Paper.

Menlo Micro also contends that the small size and smart functions of the Ideal Switch could enable devices to be automated where this was not previously possible. For example, it could be used to control socket-outlets and switches in buildings. In the US alone, there are more than 20 billion of these; converting them could eliminate the need for 11 power plants.

And incorporating the devices in the controllers for the more than a billion ceiling fans used worldwide would save enough energy to take 17 coal-fired power plants off the grid.

The Ideal Switches are manufactured using standard semiconductor wafer processing techniques with thousands of the components produced on a single wafer. The arc-free components with miniature air-gaps incorporate tiny actuators that switch in less than 10µs. They can be arranged in arrays to switch currents of more than 50A and voltages of more than 1kV.

Menlo Micro is offering prototype power relays capable of switching 10A at 227V AC or 60V DC, which weigh less than 10g, compared to 320 for an equivalent solid-state relay (SSR) or 85g for an electromagnetic relay. The heatsink-free devices consume less than 5mW compared to 60mW for a SSR or 1.5W for a relay, and they switch in 100µs, compared to 75-100µs for a SSR or 30ms for a relay.

The Ideal Switch technology started life in GE’s labs in 2004. This work led to the development of unique materials and processes for making high-power micro-mechanical relays. Menlo was formed in 2016 to scale up the process for high volume manufacturing, and to commercialise the technology for non-GE markets.

Menlo Micro is exploring setting up manufacturing locations in California, New York, Texas, and Florida.

Menlo MicroTwitter  LinkedIn

The MEMS switches can be arranged in arrays to switch high voltages and currents

  • To view a digital copy of the latest issue of Drives & Controls, click here.

    To visit the digital library of past issues, click here

    To subscribe to the magazine, click here



"Do you think that robots create or destroy jobs?"



Most Read Articles