What's Google Up To With Its New $1 Million Prize?

Google is well known for its mission to organize the world’s information, as well as side projects like, say, funding private lunar missions. But its latest million-dollar competition and grantmaking program targets an obscure-but-crucial component in energy use. What are they up to?

As the tech giant has grown into the omnipresent force that it is today, it’s waded into some fascinating projects. There’s the self-driving car initiative, and the Musk-y Google Lunar XPRIZE. But following the trend we saw with the UK’s Longitude Prize, Google is funding a competition to radically improve a key component used in everything from personal electronics to solar power arrays. 

The Little Box Challenge, a partnership between Google and engineering association IEEE, will award $1 million to the team that can shrink a power inverter by more than 10 times, from a picnic cooler-size to more like a laptop, while keeping the power it can handle high. Anyone can enter, with applications due at the end of September. For academic teams, there are also one-time, unrestricted grants available

Why power inverters? Without getting into the greasy stuff, the component is responsible for converting DC power to AC power, so taking the juice in batteries or other sources and turning it into the kind of electricity that can actually light up homes or turn driveshafts. While a lot of coverage of the competition has focused on the importance of improving the devices in electric cars, there are all kinds of implications. One that Google focuses on is making solar power and electrical grids more efficient and easier to distribute to more places, including remote areas of the world. 

Why Google? Well for one, Google makes cars these days. So there’s that. They also run massive data centers all over the world that suck up enormous amounts of power, making them one of the world’s largest consumers of energy. So in some sense they are a client looking to improve their vendors, shaking up the world of suppliers of inverter technology, as pointed out by one tech blogger

But Google has been increasingly becoming heavily involved in the energy industry. The company has been investing in solar and wind companies, to the tune of at least $1 billion. It also famously acquired smart thermostat company Nest. It’s building a huge solar array at its headquarters. And Google is reportedly starting work on hardware and software to improve efficiency of energy transmission.

Remember that Google has always been about scaling up its influence, and about disruption. All these signs point to the fact that the company is heading toward being a major player in how we get power, potentially as a new kind of energy company, as Davide Savenije pointed out a while back. One that works to decentralize where we get our power, away from utilities and large power generators.

However it plays out, that means Google will only continue to increase its investments in clean energy and transmission technology. Check out recent Google-related philanthropy coverage below:

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