How Menlo Micro's supersmall switch fights energy waste to cool the planet


A close up of Menlo Micro's switches on a chip: Image Credit: Menlo Micro
A close up of Menlo Micro's switches on a chip: Image Credit: Menlo Micro

Every outlet, every power line and every electrically powered device made in the world requires circuit relays to conduct the energy these machines need to perform their functions.


There are about 25 billion of these relays sold around the world every year, and they're all quietly contributing to climate change.

That's because every one of these switches and relays draws a small amount of power whether or not the devices they're connecting are being used. Spread over billions of switches, those minuscule amounts of power add up to heaps of wasted energy.


Well, now there's a super tiny solution to this vampire power problem -- a switch the size of a computer chip.

The American company making that switch, Menlo Micro, could save millions of dollars in energy spending, according to company backers like Tony Fadell (the designer of the original iPhones and iPods, and the founder of Google's home energy product line -- Nest).


Fadell and others believe that Menlo Micro's tech could dramatically boost energy efficiency and help rejuvenate the U.S. chip industry -- if it all goes according to plan.


"Every single switch, every single power adapter, everything that could have a vampire power problem should have easy shut off that's not a relay," Fadell said.


Menlo Micro is already proving their worth in the world of radio frequency transmission, Fadell said, but the holy grail is in energy distribution.


"This is all about energy distribution," according to Fadell. "As we upgrade the grids, every traffic light, every appliance with relays in them -- all of them have an energy distribution problem."


That distribution problem is what Menlo Micro solves for, according to Fadell and the company's own claims.


"The electronics that are used to control motors and control fans are very inefficient," said Russ Garcia, the chief executive of Menlo Micro, in an interview earlier this year. "When you replace those electronics with electronics created with [our] 'ideal switch', it takes enough energy off the grid to replace 17 coal-fired power plants."


Garcia sees the switch integrated in everything from lighting controls to HVAC controls to circuit breakers.


If companies integrate these switches into their products, they can expect to save $7 trillion in operating costs for equipment (since the solid-state switches are more reliable. Deployment of these switches in outlets and lighting could save even more energy and reduce the need for something like 11 power plants, according to the company's data.


In all, the company thinks full deployment of its chips (or similar technologies) could save $37 billion in spending by 2050 and reduce global emissions by 20%.


Switches could be miniaturized to the component level and integrated directly into a device without needing a new device to control power flows, Garcia said.


"You can do the same basic function that they’re trying to do with those energy management devices but doing it without adding extra energy consumption into the system," he said.


The company received a $150 million boost from its technology from investors in March of this year, but it's got even more juice in the tank thanks to the recent passage of the bipartisan CHIPS ACT.

The bill provides $52.7 billion in funding for companies like Menlo Micro and others working to bring semiconductor innovation and manufacturing back to the U.S.


“By signing the CHIPS and Science Act into law, President Biden has ushered in a new era of American innovation. The bill’s investments in domestic production, research and development of critical microelectronics will help strengthen America’s tech leadership, secure America’s supply chains, and fuel the American economy for years to come," Garcia said in a statement yesterday.


“We now look forward to working together to ensure this critical funding reaches the small tech companies and start-ups that are the leading source of innovation across America’s most critical industries, including communications, energy and defense.”

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