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CEO Interview: Harry Peterson of Siloxit

CEO Interview: Harry Peterson of Siloxit
by Daniel Nenni on 08-04-2023 at 6:00 am

Harry Peterson Siloxit

Harry Peterson is a mixed-signal chip designer with a BS in Physics from Caltech.  He managed IC design groups within Fairchild, Kodak, Philips, Northern Telecom, Toshiba and Pixelworks.  During sabbaticals he helped fly experiments on NASA’s orbiting satellite observatory (OSO-8) and build telescopes in the Canary Islands.  He is CEO and a co-founder of Siloxit, a startup that has developed an Industrial IoT (IioT) module that securely monitors and controls operation of the electric grid.  He has produced many publications, patents, presentations, and short courses.  For fun he swims, hikes and thinks about astronomy.

Tell me about your journey to Siloxit.

I co-founded Siloxit which is a startup and a Portfolio Company in the Silicon Catalyst Incubator. Siloxit is in the business of Distributed Online Condition Monitoring (DOCOM) of infrastructure.  The specific infrastructure market we focus on is the energy grid.

Long ago when I was an undergraduate at Caltech, I was lucky enough to get a job building telescopes.  That continued through my grad school days.  Eventually I transitioned into integrated circuit design at the venerable Fairchild Semiconductor, which was a great place to learn device physics and a nice starting point for a lifetime of adventures in mixed signal circuit design.  In 1988 some of my Fairchild colleagues invited me to join them as employee number seven at ACM research, which was the IoT startup founded by Mike Markkula before IoT was a thing.  About three years ago, my friends Nick Tredennick and Eudes Prado Lopes and I decided that IoT for infrastructure was a very compelling concept that nobody had really implemented well, and we seized the opportunity to fix that by founding Siloxit.

Can you talk a little bit more about Fairchild? Because that’s a significant job to have early in your career.

When an opportunity came up to join the team at Fairchild Semiconductor, working at the R&D fab in Palo Alto, I jumped on it. The first assignment that they gave me was working out the device physics of RAM chips to be built in an exotic fabrication process.  IBM loved it, and bought a bunch of the chips.  But the chip consumed too much power to be competitive.

At Siloxit, you are working on technology improvements that can slash the cost of building and operating the grid.  Tell me, what problems are you solving?

The use cases for these kinds of devices come from the challenges with expanding the electric-grid infrastructure.  The grid is not doing so well these days.  The grid needs to run more efficiently and more cost effectively, the distribution network needs to be expanded, reliability and security need to be better.  Also, here in California, we need to get rid of the failure modes that start wildfires and burn down forests. And big technical challenges remain as we develop solutions that have the agility and stability to deal with low-cost sources using dynamic energy resources (DER) such as wind and solar.

The good news is that most of the grid’s problems can be fixed by just using IIoT to properly control and manage the system.  The even better news is that there are some pretty sharp declines in costs on the power-generation side, so the spiraling costs could actually be pushed back down. Going after some of the easy-to-solve problems on the transmission side will likely have a big financial impact.  Technology is going through very fundamental shifts; this is something that has been a hundred years in the making, but now renewable energy and other factors are redefining the grid.

Infrastructure fails way too often. So what do you mean by helping the grid to do its job?

Let’s focus on a key example – power transformers.  At first glance, these are just boring hundred-ton hunks of iron that generally don’t even contain any Silicon.  That’s deceptive.  The physics of effectively monitoring and managing their condition with cost-effective IIoT devices turns out to be a sweet problem that can be solved with IIoT.

Now, why should this matter to you? Well, the cost implications are significant.   Each major transformer failure leads to extensive disruptions and subsequent downstream consequences. The good news is that when we deploy IIoT that does the obvious diagnostic homework, we can easily identify which ones are likely to fail next.

By doing so, we can transform an expensive catastrophe into a more affordable scheduled maintenance event. This is the ultimate goal. How do we achieve this? By detecting the failure of an insulator. Insulators have a service life of up to half a century or more, enduring high levels of stress, particularly in harsh climates like my home state of Arizona. As an insulator approaches failure, it sends warning signs, indicating its impending demise. By leveraging our understanding of plasma physics, we can recognize these signals.

These signals manifest as electrical impulses that can be captured from the associated power lines. It’s not a complex task – the main thing we need is a reliable analog-to-digital converter capable of sampling at around 100 megasamples per second with a precision of approximately 14 bits.  Also required is an IIoT system that will be described below.

In a production run of a few hundred thousand units, the cost per unit can be reduced to about a thousand dollars. Considering the financial consequences of transformer failures, which are estimated at approximately $15 million per incident according to ABB, one of the leading transformer manufacturers, the cumulative impact of one in every 200 transformers failing annually is substantial.

To address this, we propose investing a small fraction of the cost of a single transformer failure on an insurance policy, or rather an Industrial Internet of Things solution. This IIoT solution is capable of detecting the precursors to such failures and relaying this information to a central control center. With this system in place, we can organize a prompt and efficient response.

In conclusion, by leveraging advanced sensor technology and IIoT solutions, we have the potential to significantly mitigate the financial and operational risks associated with power transformer failures. Through proactive monitoring and early detection of failure precursors, we can transform these potential disasters into manageable maintenance events.

This is kind of old school technology, power grids, meet new school, IoT sensors. What tech trends are you leveraging?

Chiplets, energy harvesting, and the cognitive edge are some of the trends that we leverage. Chiplets facilitate cost-effective heterogenous integration of the odd mix of technologies required for the needed IIoT. Energy harvesting is often the only practical solution that meets the cost and longevity constraints of our applications.  Service lifetime of much of the infrastructure that needs to be monitored and managed by our IIoT devices is very long.  Commonly it needs to exceed half a century.  The notion of meeting such requirements with batteries that ‘only’ last a decade is a complete non-starter.  Magnetic-field energy harvesting (MFEH) turns out to be a good solution for many of the use-cases we address.

So what is the cognitive edge and why is this essential to you?

It is essential to process data at the edge. This limitation becomes evident when considering the costs associated with transferring a terabyte of data to a distant data center, which includes significant transportation expenses. Ideally, all calculations should be performed at the sensing point itself, following a hierarchical approach.

You can also think of this as a bio-inspired architecture.  The partition for distributing the processing workload in hardware is quite similar to the body’s partition of processing, which puts, for example, a lot of the processing of vision into biological interconnect between the photoreceptors in your retina and the neurons in your brain. Some processing is done at the sensing point, while additional processing can take place at the gateway and other levels.  Successive layers of processing lead to successive layers of data compression.

Cognitive-edge architecture brings additional benefits.  It allows for better control over communication costs and enhances security. Currently, the security of the grid is a major concern due to frequent hacking attempts. However, existing efforts in this regard have proven inadequate. Therefore, our perspective is that specific applications, such as ensuring the integrity of transformers, would benefit from reevaluating the entire process from scratch. This doesn’t imply discarding the existing infrastructure and legacy grid; rather, it means incorporating new components that are not reliant on the ineffective elements of the old system. For instance, leveraging advanced communication chips or low earth orbit satellites, which are already starting to become available, can greatly enhance the system’s capabilities.

Artificial Intelligence is essential for many of the applications we address.  Most engineers and system architects are starting to realize the huge benefits that accrue when you distribute processing rather than just sending all the data from sensors to some central signal-processing block.

What big infrastructure development projects are affected by these developments?

Let’s begin by emphasizing the significance of these projects, even if they are not big in the sense that they always grab major headlines. An example worth highlighting is the recent press release from Iberdrola, a prominent Spanish company in the grid sector. They announced their commitment to invest half a billion dollars in expanding transmission line capacity in Brazil. While individual projects may not seem monumental, the cumulative effect of such opportunities can be substantial.

These developments involve the installation of thousands of kilometers of wire, alongside various accompanying components. The challenge lies in managing an increasingly complex grid with each new generation. Furthermore, the rise of affordable, renewable energy sources adds another layer of complexity to the business landscape. To achieve cost-efficiency, it is crucial to have an agile grid that can adapt to the fluctuations in power supply from sources like wind, solar, and emerging forms of nuclear energy.

Brazil, in particular, is experiencing substantial growth, constructing thousands of kilometers of new transmission lines. These installations must withstand challenging environmental conditions, ensuring both reliability and cost-effectiveness. Additionally, they need to be safeguarded against potential threats, including acts of vandalism or unintended failures caused by external factors. The key to achieving this lies in implementing more advanced condition monitoring systems. Siloxit aims to specialize in providing highly effective condition monitoring solutions while seamlessly integrating them into the communication networks and management structures of the grid.

Why did you choose to work with Silicon Catalyst?

When we decided to build IIoT that would help the grid do its job, we knew we would have to dance with elephants.  In the early days we were just half a dozen folks in a little startup explaining to billion-dollar customers that they should embrace our out-of-the-box thinking about better solutions for the problems they have been working on for a century.  When you first think about how a dozen folks in a little startup can actually interact with the people and institutions that are driving these big-league developments, the answers are not immediately obvious.  Shortly after we founded Siloxit, we joined Silicon Catalyst.  It has been a wonderful experience to see how Silicon Catalyst has helped us connect the dots, allowing us to partner with TSMC and ST Microelectronics and IMEC and Leti and many others.  The list of partners we’ve had the good fortune to work with thanks to Silicon Catalyst is just overwhelming.

I saw that you have a partnership coming up with YorChip. Is there something there you would like to talk about?

Our partnership with YorChip is very exciting. I have collaborated with Kash Johal, the CEO of YorChip, on various projects for many years. It is clear that chiplets offer significant advantages for specific use cases. Siloxit faces challenges that encompass multiple disciplines, requiring us to bring together various resources like threshold sensors, security widgets, processor widgets, A-to-D conversion solutions, and communication components within a very compact module while ensuring cost-effectiveness.

The contemporary approach is to leverage chiplets, which harness the best attributes of highly efficient technologies but in a size format that avoids unnecessary overprovisioning. For instance, an A-to-D conversion task doesn’t require a square centimeter-sized chip; a millimeter-sized chip may suffice. Furthermore, advancements in packaging technology, particularly in sensor, processor chip, A-to-D converter, and antenna domains, enable seamless integration of these chiplets. It’s not merely about assembling IP components from different catalogs but designing chiplets that effectively harmonize with the entire system.

Security is one critical aspect that demands special attention, requiring careful consideration at the logic design and device design levels.

By successfully integrating these chiplets, while utilizing only a small percentage of the available space, we achieve a significant outcome that is far from trivial but well worth the effort. YorChip’s focus aligns precisely with these objectives, and we anticipate incorporating this technology into more Siloxit products moving forward.

Also Read:

CEO Interview: Rob Gwynne of QPT

CEO Interview: Ashraf Takla of Mixel

CEO Interview: Dr. Sean Wei of Easy-Logic

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