Home Technology Understanding the efficiency of DC-DC converters

Understanding the efficiency of DC-DC converters

For industries and operations that deal with power, the phrase “power management” is very familiar.  That’s because two of the great challenges of power are consumption, and efficiency.  To that end, the industries that rely on power efficiency use a range of electric converters to help get the job done.

We’re all familiar with the AC-DC adapter, which converts the AC (alternating current) from the wall into useable DC (direct current) power with the precisely correct voltage characteristics for the task at hand – we use them each and every day to, for example, plug in our laptops.

The DC-DC converter – What’s it for?

But another power converter worth knowing about is the DC-DC converter.  Unlike the AC-DC device, the DC-DC converter accepts DC input voltage – and also puts out DC voltage.  Firstly, it can simply be the best way to either ‘step up’ the input voltage, or ‘step down’ the voltage.  A 24V to 12V converter, for instance, takes 24 volts and turns it into 12, while a 12V to 24V converter can even do the opposite – which is a particularly handy way to save space, weight, complexity and cost on-board a device by minimising the reliance on extra batteries.

dc dc converter circuit

Why efficiency is so important

However, while getting the correct voltage is what DC-DC converters are about, there’s more to it than that.  Indeed, when organisations are on the market for a converter, there’s almost always a word on their minds – “efficiency”.  The efficiency of a converter represents the amount of the input that successfully crossed over to the output, and the better the efficiency, the less wastage there is – and the smaller the organisation’s overall footprint, which is a primary consideration in our ever greener world.  

For instance, consider an internal combustion engine, and recognise that only about 20% of the fuel you put into it actually pushes the car forward – the rest is noise, heat, friction and other losses – making it only 20% thermally efficient.  Improving that efficiency has been a major focus of the car manufacturers over the years, and in Formula 1, for example, the hybrid engines that recover and re-use energy from braking and turbochargers have boosted efficiency up to an impressive 50%.

Efficiency – A fine line to walk

The DC-DC converter, however, is typically much more efficient than that – modern converters can be up to 95% efficient.  But it remains a simple fact of life that, depending on the quality and specifics of the design, a less efficient converter will typically be the cheaper one.  As we all know, modern technology of every kind can be made particularly small in size these days, and that’s doubly true for DC-DC converters as they can be operated at very high frequencies.  

But with higher frequencies goes greater losses, meaning that the smaller your converter, the less efficiency it will tend to be.  However, for designers, there’s a fine line to be walked, because the role a DC-DC converter can play in packaging is to reduce overall system size by reducing the amount of heat that needs to be dissipated.

An even more efficient future

As the advance of technology marches on, DC-DC converters will undoubtedly become even more efficient, making them even more useful, adaptable and powerful for organisations needing power that is not only reliable and regulated, but more readily deployed with less consideration required for the potential downsides or trade-offs.

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