Galvanic isolation in electric vehicles

October 27, 2020 // By Charlie Ice, Silicon Labs
Galvanic isolation in electric vehicles
EVs have multiple voltage domains and functions that need to be electrically isolated, yet still able to communicate.

For people familiar with conventional engines, looking under the hood of a fully electric vehicle (EV) is a mystifying experience. The main difference will, of course, be the lack of an internal combustion engine (ICE). Instead, they are likely to find the electric traction inverter, which is often the same size and mounted in a way that resembles a conventional engine. Other systems will look even less familiar, but there is a good chance they will be able to identify one component that has changed little - the 12 V battery.

In a non-EV vehicle, the 12 V system is required to power the starter motor, which provides the initial rotation of the ICE to start the four-stroke combustion cycle. Given that an EV has no need for a starter motor, it may be surprising to discover the presence of a 12 V battery. However, the majority of an EV's electrical systems still operate from 12 V. With no ICE or alternator present, the 12 V system must be completely powered from the high voltage, traction battery.

This presents an interesting design requirement. The traction inverter system is likely to operate at a DC voltage in the region of 800 V. This high DC voltage is converted to AC in order to drive the traction motors. However, the traction battery in an EV is not simply multiple 12 V batteries connected in series to create 800 V; it is a sealed unit. The addition of this high voltage system, and its role in the vehicle, means the 12 V system is now commonly referred to as the auxiliary system. It powers everything that is auxiliary to the traction system (including the traction control system).

The main high voltage battery is now responsible for providing power to the 12 V auxiliary system in order to keep the battery charged. For safety reasons, it needs to do this in a way that maintains electrical isolation between the two voltage domains.


Figure 1: The key components of an electric vehicle (Source: Energy.Gov)

Isolation is critical

Figure 1 is a typical EV diagram and depicts a number of functions, including the traction inverter, climate control and heating, and the on-board charger. These systems operate at radically different voltage levels and must be galvanically isolated. Galvanic isolation prevents the flow of current between the different voltage domains while still supporting the flow of data and power.

Historically, galvanic isolation for data transmission has been implemented using optical technology, with an LED source and photodiode receiver. However, the demands of the automotive market in general and electric vehicles, in particular, have spurred the development and adoption of digital isolation technologies.

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