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Google funds million-dollar contest for better power electronics

The Little Box Challenge is designed to shrink the size of power inverters, devices used in solar panels and electric cars. It's part of Google's effort to improve its green-tech image.

The Little Box Challenge from Google and the IEEE seeks a smaller ower inverter.
The Little Box Challenge from Google and the IEEE seeks a smaller power inverter. Google

Enough with the better mousetrap. Google wants the world to have a better power inverter.

This device -- used in green-tech equipment including from solar power generators to electric vehicles -- is in need of major improvement. That's why Google and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) announced the Little Box Challenge on Tuesday, a $1 million contest designed to encourage inventors to shrink power converters to a tenth of their current size down to the size of a laptop.

"Inverters are the essential boxes that take direct current from devices such as solar panels and batteries and turn it into alternating current for use in homes, businesses, and cars," Google said on the contest page. "The problem is household inverters are too big -- roughly the size of a picnic cooler. Making them smaller would enable more solar-powered homes, more efficient distributed electrical grids, and could help bring electricity to the most remote parts of the planet."

Contests have been used for ages to spur innovation -- everything from finding gigantic prime numbers to improving Netflix movie recommendations to improving home-router software to sending a robot to the moon without government funding. The incentives don't always generate the desired breakthrough, but they can generate a lot of interest.

Google itself stands to gain directly from better power inverters.

"Many of these improvements could make our data centers run more safely and efficiently," Google said. The company, with hundreds of thousands of servers operating across the globe, has a major interest in improving how much computing work it can get done with a given amount of electrical power.

There's also a less tangible potential benefit: Google tries to cultivate an image of environmental responsibility, and associating itself with green technology can help that image.

Contestants must submit a technical approach by July 15, 2015. Google will notify 18 finalists of their selection in October, and name the grand prize winner in January 2016.