Universal Power Adapter Offers Alternative to Wall Warts

Universal Power Adapter Offers Alternative to Wall Warts
The uPower adapter would be compatible with many devices and would provide only as much voltage as they need.

When Doug Palmer realized he had forgotten his mobile phone adapter on a vacation in Mexico several years ago, the first thought that crossed his mind was, "There has to be a better way."

Palmer, a principal development engineer at the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), has long been frustrated with what he calls "the annoying wall wart." A slang term for external power adapters, wall warts are used to convert the electrical current and voltage of a wall socket into the actual operating current and voltage used by devices such as mobile phones and laptops. Their less-than-flattering sobriquet derives from a cumbersome design: Wall warts are often so large that they block other outlets, and so heavy that they can fall out of the wall socket entirely. Critics have also assailed manufacturers of wall warts for causing dependence on their product-specific adapters (as Palmer found out the hard way).

Worse still, wall warts suck up a staggering amount of electricity. According to a 2001 speech he delivered to Department of Energy employees, President Bush (who referred to the devices as "energy vampires") said that wall warts consume an estimated 4 percent of all the electricity used in the average U.S. home. Extrapolated to a national scale, that's a total of about 52 billion kilowatt hours, or the energy produced by 20 average-size power plants. In addition, adapters are often discarded once a consumer abandons the associated device. With 2.5 billion rechargeable devices sold in 2002 alone, that's a lot of electronic waste taking up space in landfills.

The "better way" that Palmer hopes for just might be emerging in the research laboratories at Calit2. Palmer is in the initial stages of designing a prototype for what he calls a Universal Power Adapter — a "smart" replacement for traditional wall transformers that would supply both power and communications to consumer electronics.

Informally known as uPower or UPA, the adapter would serve as a single power supply for one or more mobile or fixed devices or power packs. Once hooked up to the uPower adapter, an electronic appliance would use low data-rate communications to "request" the voltage it needs, and the adapter would adjust volts to operate the appliance. According to Palmer, this means there is conceptually no limit to the variety of devices (even hybrid cars) that could be plugged into the UPA.. Palmer says that in the future, he envisions the uPower adapter replacing the typical plastic wall plate, with its limited two-plug capacity for powering electronics.

Using the UPA also makes powering electronic devices more efficient. Currently, the U.S. electric power grid delivers electricity at 220 or 110 volts, but more and more devices require only 3 to 12 volts. The UPA would provide only the voltage needed — no more, no less. Furthermore, once light bulbs are replaced by far more efficient light-emitting diodes (LED) as many lighting industry leaders believe they will be, only a few appliances around the home and office will require high voltage electricity (the garbage disposal and washing machine are among them), making the UPA a practical alternative to bulky external adapters and wall plates.

Palmer also envisions the design of the adapter to allow for device-to-device communication, meaning that both power and data communication are delivered to the device over the same line, much the way that a USB cable works.

Another key component of the adapter is its ability to accept power from solar energy. Palmer's idea is for consumers to "get off the grid" entirely by buying an inexpensive solar panel to supply power to the adapter, creating what's known as a "nano-grid." These small, cheap solar panels, combined with the UPAs, would provide a low-cost alternative to using grid power.

Regardless of how consumers use the device, the cost and energy savings are significant, Palmer says.

"If you can start buying little low-cost solar panels and start nibbling away at your electricity costs that way, you can really bring your electricity bill down. The average wall warts or 'house parasites' cost the consumer $10 a month.

"And let's look at the energy savings as well," he continued. "Even when they're just plugged in and not powering anything, those little wall warts suck up three watts. Three watts multiplied by three billion wall warts? How much coal is that? How many trees? Ten percent of all energy consumed in the U.S. is just for keeping wall warts warm. And the average suitcase has over one pound of wall warts in it. Think of all the fuel that's used to haul them around!"

Several other features of the uPower adapter reflect its "smart" design. When hooked up to the grid, the adapter can adjust during brownouts to do non-peak power charging and utilization. It can also transfer power between devices, if required. For example, if both your mobile phone and MP3 player were plugged into the device and one was charged, but the other was depleted, the UPA would recognize the discrepancy and take power from one device to charge the other.

The "smart" design of the UPA could also help improve conditions in the developing world. Palmer is collaborating with Srinivas Sukumar, manager of Calit2-San Diego's India Initiative, which works with the Indian government, universities and non-governmental organizations to create collaborative projects. Sukumar says he sees endless ways that India's population of 1 billion people could use the uPower adapter, especially since the country lacks a reliable power grid.

"The way to think about it is, what are the essentials?" he said. "Rather than solve the whole problem, our solution is practical and small. Right now, lighting is potentially the biggest application for the adapter when paired with a low-cost solar panel."

"When I tell people about the UPA," Palmer says, "They all say, 'Gosh, I wish I had that.'" And he has the facts to back him up: Forrester Research recently revealed that 25 million U.S. adults are willing to spend more for gadgets that use less energy or employ environmentally conscious design.

So, perhaps the question isn't if people will support uPower, but when?

"The challenge is not technical in terms of implementing it," Sukumar said. "The real challenge is to get manufacturers to redesign their products. Essentially, what this means is an entirely new ecosystem will have to be developed. This is a huge challenge. We're dealing with a completely different paradigm."

For the uPower to be compatible with the multitude of electronic devices that consumers use everyday, the manufacturers of those devices would have to not only redesign their power components, but would also have to make them "speak the same language" as the UPA, Palmer says.

Explains Sukumar: "It's a disruptive technology. That is, the entry point is difficult and it feels like it has disadvantages. Except that if it grows in scale, it tends to create an alternate paradigm. It's a matter of 'which is going to be the first shoe to drop?'"

"And once it does," Palmer added, "consumers will be calling the shots."

One San Ramon-based company is already looking to tap into consumer interest in universal adapter technology. Greenplug, which has just signed on as a partner with Westinghouse, has created an embedded power supply technology for consumer electronics that allows power supplies to "communicate" with those devices and agree upon power requirements. Greenplug's own research underscores the consumer distaste for "wall warts": A study commissioned by the company in May shows that more than 60 percent of American consumers view incompatible power adapters as "wasteful" or "frustrating."

Currently, Palmer is seeking outside funding to develop a prototype for the uPower technology, and has spoken to Ford and Qualcomm about implementing the device into some of their products. He and Sukumar are hoping to organize a workshop that will raise visibility about the adapter, and eventually create a "Center of Excellence" focused on the technology, possibly called "Center for Intelligent Micropower Systems."

Palmer is hopeful that with government mandates to develop more efficient power supplies and the growing "green movement" among consumers, uPower and other technologies like it will pave the way for a revolution in energy consumption.

"It seems like while we're trying to shovel our way into this, a big bulldozer is coming," he said. "We need to bring the people together, and through that synergy will come the funding and resources. It's the generation that hasn't been born yet who will go nuts for this."

Source: University of California, San Diego


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Jul 07, 2008
Could it be that Edison had it right? Maybe DC voltage WAS a better idea!
Just switch the entire house over to lower voltage DC, and use plug-in inverters when you need AC.

...but keep your horses away from any underground wiring -:)

jet
Jul 07, 2008
No DC was not better, unless you want a power plant every few of miles.

If you have a single transformer at each house DC at the house would work, but would still need DC to DC conveyors due to different voltages per device

Jul 07, 2008
Pitched the right way, I could see this being very attractive to electronic companies. Instead of bundling a power adaptor, they might simply be able to get away with a cable or just a socket on the device. The consumer would connect the device with a standard cable to the UPA. This could save manufacturers hugely in cost, weight, and reduced complexity since for many gadgets the wall wart weighs nearly as much as the device itself.

Jul 07, 2008
Great, we're going to have competing technologies for a 'universal' power connector, or another set of adaptor plugs.

Jul 07, 2008
And all this could be done without drawing that 3W? Replacing all the wall warts with uPower warts?

Jul 07, 2008
hey, what if they made phones that can draw power from their mini-USB plug. then if you want, you can snap on a little wall outlet adapter onto the other end instead of plugging it in to the computer if all you want at that time is power? or does that already exist? :/

Jul 07, 2008
just use a power bar with a switch - one for the entertainment center and one for the computer accessories. turn off the power supplies that are not in use. turn off the lights when you leave the room.

What is so high tech about a SPST switch?

Jul 08, 2008
this universal adapter is a great idea!!

hopefully they'll bring out a european version, a UK version, the US version, asian version as well.

:*)

Jul 08, 2008
I really like the idea of running a house off a few volts, communal facilities for the power hungry applications, then powering your house via solar energy becomes a real possibility.

Jul 08, 2008
hey, what if they made phones that can draw power from their mini-USB plug. then if you want, you can snap on a little wall outlet adapter onto the other end instead of plugging it in to the computer if all you want at that time is power? or does that already exist? :/


Yip I believe most phones do this already but they charge far slower than by the mains, well my sony ericsson does anyway.

Jul 08, 2008
but would still need DC to DC conveyors due to different voltages per device


Standard design dictates the the voltage coming into a circuit is regulated, filtered, and if need be fused. Today's regulation circuitry is extremely efficient. Every properly engineered electronic device out there already has the circuitry necessary to convert a moderate range of input voltages into the required ones.

The logistics of that Universal adapter would be a nightmare, considering all the wires you'd have going to that one place, not to mention that once (and not if) it breaks down everything that was plugged into it will also break down (or worst-case burn out!).

A house that has, let's say, 12 volts DC running in the walls (a standard voltage)instead of 110 volts AC, could be fed directly by any EV/Wind/other generation system, and it could directly power most of the lower energy devices in the house.
Yes higher-powered devices (stoves, air conditioners, heaters) would still require the higher AC voltage, in order to keep the wiring size down (higher voltage=less current), but those things already have dedicated wiring for the most part.
My kids still marvel at how the lights never go out in our house during big storms, while the neighborhood is dark. My lighting is pretty much all LED now, fed off of a smart controller which has hefty battery backup, and I DO have 12VDC running through my walls...so I know of which I speak :)

Jul 08, 2008
110 AC should stay as it is (TVs, computers, sound systems, lighting, heaters, ovens, toasters, washers, vacuum cleaners, etc all need high power supply), low power supply for small electronics should run parallel to it.

There are however a few problems with transition to such a system:

1 Universal adapter would be much more costly and bigger then many regular wall wards (as it would have to have a capacity to operate many devices). Manufacturers of electronic devices would have to provide their own warts so all people can use their devices and as supplies are a small part of most devices it wouldn't make sense to ship 2 versions - with and without power supply.

2. You would have to buy one for each place where you have electronics or run new cables around your house and make proper sockets and thats a lot of hassle.

3. Competing standards would make the transition even more difficult if not impossible.

Due to the above the proper way to introduce them is to form an alliance of hardware manufacturers (as many as possible) and devise a *single* standard for such power supplies so that when operational it can serve as many brands as possible. The design should be straightforward without most of the fancy stuff mentioned in the article (it can be added later when the universal power supply is established), it should specify used communication protocol and wiring. When the standard is in place such devices would hopefully be installed in new build houses and in more expensive devices.
When a proper standard is in place semiconductor manufacturers would quickly come up with an integrated circuit capable of interfacing between the supply and the device which would greatly simplify adding support for such supplies to new devices.
It will all happen eventually.

As for the article many wall warts use switching power supplies which are much more efficient then transformer based ones and don't draw 3W when not in use so the article exaggerates wall warts drawbacks. They are still ugly and annoying though.

Jul 08, 2008
Whats really stupid is the amount of DC, converted to AC, Coverted back to DC, converted AC to step up or down, converted back to DV...

Its brutal.. We can standardize serial communication... (USB) yet we can't standardize a common power connection?

3 Connections for everyone... devices are responsible to convert to the exact what they need or better yet should be designed to work at these voltages...

AC-240V
DC-24V
DC-5V

(Also keep in mind, Voltage isn't everything.. the amount of current that the wires/transformers/transistors can carry is also a large factor/cost)

Jul 08, 2008
(TVs, computers, sound systems, lighting, heaters, ovens, toasters, washers, vacuum cleaners, etc all need high power supply)


Sorry to contradict you *superhuman* but TVs, computers, sound systems, portable telephones, DVD players, cellphone (or any other battery) chargers, LCD screens, LED lighting (and many other appliances) ALL have to convert the 110VAC voltage down to a much lower DC voltage, and lose efficiency doing it!

And ShadowRam is right, the constant conversion of voltages is extremely wasteful. I'm not preaching converting the whole grid to DC, but making a common DC voltage available throughout a house only makes sense when you want to reduce your overall consumption. Remember, most appliances still use older linear power supplies which convert the dropped voltage into heat.

When a proper standard is in place semiconductor manufacturers would quickly come up with an integrated circuit capable of interfacing between the supply and the device which would greatly simplify adding support for such supplies to new devices.
It will all happen eventually.


Standards already exist for power supplies, now it's just a matter of whose connectors we're going to use!

Jul 08, 2008
Voltage reduction on D.C. requires heat loss. Any
loose connection on D.C. is accelerated fire hazzard. Ask this old submarine electrician. D.C.
is a PAIN AS A POWER SOURCE!


We're not talking about powering 400HP electric motors here, since we'd be limited by the existing house wiring limit of 15-amps or so. And DC becomes more problematic as the voltage rises, as I've experienced having serviced 600V motor drives in the past.
Whether it be 12 or 24 VDC, it still makes for a more efficient system.

Jul 08, 2008
(TVs, computers, sound systems, lighting, heaters, ovens, toasters, washers, vacuum cleaners, etc all need high power supply)


Sorry to contradict you *superhuman* but TVs, computers, sound systems, portable telephones, DVD players, cellphone (or any other battery) chargers, LCD screens, LED lighting (and many other appliances) ALL have to convert the 110VAC voltage down to a much lower DC voltage, and lose efficiency doing it!


I know they have to convert it down but the ones I mentioned require high *power*. If you lower the voltage you have to increase the current to provide the same amount of power and high current is troublesome - it requires thick, bulky and expensive cables and connectors and it increases the resistive losses in the network as they are equal to I * I * R. Thats why devices which require more then a certain amount of power, lets say 500W are better of with 110V AC. Those devices don't have wall warts now anyway.


Whats really stupid is the amount of DC, converted to AC, Coverted back to DC, converted AC to step up or down, converted back to DV...

AC is converted to DC but it is almost never converted back to AC after that in home equipment.

Jul 08, 2008
...again, switching power supplies convert AC to high voltage DC, then pulsed voltage, then finally to regulated DC...but it would appear I've allowed myself to get off topic...we in fact were talking about plug-in wall adapters, and you are correct in that the higher powered devices don't usually use them anyways...funny how we wander sometimes :) my apologies

Jul 12, 2008
Please add energy measurement to the features. Increase the information flow to consumers of how much juice appliance and devices are actually draining.

Jul 14, 2008
This is indeed a great article; interesting comments on the power consumption of low cost adaptors; it is good to note that Power Integrations has been making a switch controller with an integrated MOSFET for some time now. The Tiny 3 aka TNYIII series of parts are relatively easy to use for CC and CV applications; The newest series of off line switches are the HX series in which an off-Line power supply can be made up to 300 or so Watts. I constructed my own design with a TNY 3 series part TNY280PN and created a universal input...aka 85 to 264 VAC input and a dual out put charger that had a no load effeciency that was over 80%, and with a load up to 88% and 90% effecient. with low cost componants it is easy to acheive 70% accross the board.

oozlefinch

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