Matthias Preindl (right) and Wesley Pennington discuss software-defined power electronics in MPlab. (Image: Jane Nisselson/Columbia Engineering)

Matthias Preindl, associate professor of electrical engineering at Columbia Engineering, and Wesley Pennington, the founder and CEO of Tau Motors, have formed a collaboration to create efficient power conversion systems. With transportation marking the largest share of energy related emissions, the two are focused on making a meaningful and immediate impact through their work.

They were seeking to design more modern solutions to create the next generation of products for electrification, to design options that are not only high-performance, but also scalable. They worked at designing technologies that solve power conversion challenges by tightly integrating software into hardware systems to replace volatile materials and expensive components. This software-defined approach works to reduce manufacturing costs, increase efficiency, and decrease development times to deploy new products to market.

In Preindl’s lab (MPlab), the team develops power electronic systems with a focus on motor drives and energy storage for EVs and their integration in electric grids with high penetration of renewable energy. His group is interested in designing next-generation electric powertrains — all the components that power a vehicle, from the battery to the motor. Preindl is hoping to transform the current technology by designing software-defined power electronic systems that are based on Lego-like interchangeable modules, called autoconverter modules (ACMs) which are the building blocks for soft-switching inverters and software-defined power electronics.

MPlab researchers have developed a hierarchical protocol to define and control power converters by software: ACMs form the physical layer, real-time communication is the basis for the interconnection layer, and machine learning and optimization-based estimation and control techniques enable the application layer.

The team has shown that the converters can achieve a particularly high efficiency, well in excess of 99 percent, while reducing converter costs by solving key power electronic challenges locally in the ACM. This technology is positioned to slash EV costs, increase their range, and reduce charging times. The advancements in the design and control of these power electronic and motor drive systems go beyond EVs, with applications in renewable energy and smart grids for higher efficiency and performance.

Since 2018, the work in MPlab has continued to double the power density of their autoconverter modules approximately every two years. And they don’t see that slowing down.