MIT, TI debut energy-efficient microchip

New chip design could boost energy efficiency tenfold for cell phones, medical devices

MIT and Texas Instruments introduce a chip designed for portable electronics that researchers say is 10 times more energy-efficient than current technology.

Cell phones running low on battery power could be a thing of the past if new chip technology co-developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Texas Instruments lives up to its promise.

The research team, scheduled to unveil its chip design for portable electronics Tuesday, reports the technology can be as much as 10 times more energy-efficient than the technology used in today's cell phones and other portable devices. The energy-efficient technology can be put to use in mobile devices, as well as implantable medical devices and sensors to extend the life of the portable device longer than if it was battery-charged, researchers say.

Successfully designing such an energy-efficient chip required researchers find ways to make the circuits on the chip work at a lower voltage level than usual, said Anantha Chandrakasan, in an MIT statement. Chandrakasan, who is the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering, said reducing the operating voltage represented a challenge because existing microchips have been built to operate at a higher standard voltage level.

"Memory and logic circuits have to be redesigned to operate at very low power supply voltages," he said.

The power supply voltage requirements are designed to be so low, MIT and IT say, that implantable medical devices could be powered by "ambient energy," or in layman's terms, by using the body's own heat or movement to provide the power.

Three electrical engineering graduate students (from left) Yogesh Ramadass, Naveen Verma, and Joyce Kwong, seated, are members of Professor Anantha Chandrasakan's team that has developed a microchip that is 10 times more energy efficient than others. MIT photo by Donna Coveney.

Commercial applications of the chip technology in cell phones, medical devices or military applications that require self-contained sensor networks in the battlefield could be available in five years or sooner, Chandrakasan said in an MIT statement.

The research team also had to take into account typical variations in chip manufacturing, which would impact the levels of voltage the chip needs to operate efficiently. "Designing the chip to minimize its vulnerability to such variations is a big part of our strategy," Chandrakasan said.

The chip is a proof of concept and is being presented this week at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco by Joyce Kwong, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Intel, AMD and others have been racing to deliver more energy efficient chips, and Intel recently had one of its claims challenged.

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