Google Reveals 'Little Box Challenge' Rules for Contest's $1M Prize

The Challenge seeks designs for a smaller, better and more efficient solar power inverter, which is used to collect renewable energy to be used by consumers.

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Google has now laid out the rules for its $1 million "Little Box Challenge" competition, which was unveiled as a concept in May to encourage the development of smaller, more efficient solar power inverters that can store energy for later consumption.

The complete rules and requirements for the contest were announced by Maggie Johnson, Google's director of education and university relations, in a July 22 post on the Google Research Blog. "Think shrink! Min it to win it! Smaller is baller! That's what the Little Box Challenge is all about: developing a high power density inverter," wrote Johnson. "It's a competition presented by Google and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Power Electronics Society (IEEE PELS)—not only a grand engineering challenge, but your chance to make a big impact on the future of renewables and electricity."

The prize for the winning entry is $1 million, which organizers hope will inspire incredible innovations from academic researchers to miniaturize today's bulky power inverters so that they can be used to harness solar power for when it is needed. The competition is only open to researchers and students at colleges and universities.

"Some recent advances may change what's possible in power electronics," wrote Johnson. "For example, Wide-bandgap (WBG) semiconductors—such as gallium-nitride (GaN) and silicon-carbide (SiC)"—enable higher power storage densities than conventional silicon-based devices do, but they can "run into limits on the power density of inverters."

At the same time, inverters may have the most potential for solving solar energy storage problems today, wrote Johnson. "And because inverters are so common in household applications, we hope The Little Box Challenge may lead to improvements not only in power density, but also in reliability, efficiency, safety, and cost."

If ways can be found to shrink inverters and make them more reliable and inexpensive, "we could see all kinds of useful applications to the electric grid, consumer devices and beyond, maybe including some we have yet to imagine," she wrote.

Proposals and entries for the competition are due Sept. 30, 2014, and Google's Research at Google division will provide unrestricted grant funding to academics pursuing the prize, which can be used for research equipment and to support students, wrote Johnson. The deadline for grant funding requests is also Sept. 30.

Google also announced that it will be working with a group of the WBG manufacturers to ask them to provide information to the entrants so they can get the latest technologies to work on in their research, wrote Johnson. "We hope you'll consider entering, and please tell your colleagues, professors, students and dreamers—you can print and post these posters on your campus to spread the word."

The competition aims to find ways to shrink solar power inverters from the size of a picnic cooler down to the size of a small laptop, according to another Google blog post on the subject by Eric Raymond of the Google Green Team. "These days, if you’re an engineer, inventor or just a tinkerer with a garage, you don't have to look far for a juicy opportunity: there are cash prize challenges dedicated to landing on the moon, building a self-driving car, cleaning the oceans, or inventing an extra-clever robot. Today, together with the IEEE, we're adding one more: shrinking a big box into a little box."

The shrunken inverter will be able to "convert the energy that comes from solar, electric vehicles and wind (DC power) into something you can use in your home (AC power)," wrote Raymond. "We want to shrink it down to the size of a small laptop, roughly 1/10th of its current size. Put a little more technically, we're looking for someone to build a kW-scale inverter with a power density greater than 50W per cubic inch. Do it best and we'll give you a million bucks."