How Low Power Chips Can Beat Back Vampire Power

Is the key to eliminating vampire power from our gadgets nanomaterials? IBM (s IBM) researchers are working on tunnel field-effect transistors (PDF) that can cut the power of consumer electronics by a factor of 10, and on Wednesday, announced an EU-funded project to try to bring these power-sipping chips from theory to market over the next six to 10 years

Project Steeper, as it’s called, is aimed at reducing the operating voltage of transistors — the basic on-off switches of all microelectronics — to reduce overall power usage, explained Heike Riel, leader of nanoscale electronics research at IBM. The word “steeper” refers to that voltage “slope,” or the difference in voltage between on and off states.

Current metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor (MOSFET) technology has brought that operating voltage down to about 1 volt, she said, but reducing it further will require new materials and new architectures. That’s what IBM and universities in Switzerland, Italy and Germany are working on, using so-called “III-V” semiconducting nanowires: tiny cylinders of material like indium arsenide that are wrapped in materials that form the “gate,” or other side of the switch. (Here’s a paper that Riel co-wrote that goes into technical detail, and here’s a YouTube (s goog) video primer with some nifty graphics).

Because energy consumption of these devices is the voltage cubed — that is, voltage multiplied by itself, and then by itself again — cutting the voltage from today’s one volt to, say, less than 0.5 volts could lead to a tenfold decrease in power needed by these new tunnel field-effect transistors (tunnel FITs), Riel said. In addition, lowering the voltage could reduce the standby, or “vampire” power drawn when these devices aren’t in use to nearly nothing, she said. The EU estimates that vampire power accounts for some 15 percent of household electricity consumption, and a variety of efforts are underway at the device and charger level to reduce vampire power. But tunnel FITs could cut it off at the source.

Of course, this is all theoretical, as “combining nanowire with III-V materials is not yet demonstrated,” Riel said. That’s the purpose of the EU-IBM partnership, which will be carried out at the $90 million nanocenter outside Zurich that IBM is building, and will be funded by about 4 million euros ($5.5 million) from the EU and an undisclosed match from corporate partners. Within three years, researchers hope to prove the concept works, and within 6 to 10 years, they hope to design manufacturing processes to build chips with the new technology.

“In principal, this is good for every electronic circuit, whether sensors, mobile devices, future implantable electronics” and other electronic devices that could use lower power requirements, Riel said.

That, in turn, could open up broader applications for so-called energy harvesting technologies that capture minute amounts of power from kinetic energy, ambient heat and the like to keep tiny remote or mobile devices perpetually charged, or perhaps help do away with some of the power constraints now limiting the growth of supercomputing, she said.

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Image courtesy of IBM.