Microchip promises longer-lasting, self-charging electronic devices

Researchers today will unveil an experimental chip design for portable electronics that can be up to 10 times more energy-efficient than present chip technology. The design could lead to cell phones, implantable medical devices and sensors that last far longer when running from a battery.

MIT and Texas Instruments researchers said the key to the improvement in energy efficiency was to find ways of making the circuits on the chip work at a voltage level much lower than usual.

 While most current chips operate at around one volt, the new design works at just 0.3 volts, researchers said. Another issue was to build a high-efficiency DC-to-DC converter-which reduces the voltage to the lower level-right on the same chip, reducing the number of separate components. The redesigned memory and logic, along with the DC-to-DC converter, are all integrated to realize a complete system-on-a-chip package.

 One of the biggest problems researchers had to overcome was the variability that occurs in typical chip manufacturing. At lower voltage levels, variations and imperfections in the silicon chip become more problematic, researchers said.

Commercial applications could become available in five years, maybe even sooner, researchers said. For example, portable and implantable medical devices, portable communications devices and networking devices could be based on such chips, and thus have greatly increased up time.

There may also be a variety of military applications in the production of tiny, self-contained sensor networks that could be dispersed in a battlefield, researchers said.In some applications, such as implantable medical devices, the goal is to make the power requirements so low that they could be powered by ambient energy or using the body’s own heat or movement to provide all the needed power.

The chip will be presented today at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco.

Getting computers and other electronic devices to operate with lower power requirements is an ongoing development. For example, Lenovo last month  launched ThinkCentre A61e ultra small form factor desktop. The company claims it be the smallest, quietest and most energy-efficient desktop yet.  It powered by 45-watt AMD Athlon 64 X2 dual core and AMD Sempron single core processors. The ThinkCentre A61e desktop uses up to 90% reusable/recyclable materials as well as 90 percent recyclable packaging and can also be powered by an optional solar panel.   

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