Market Research and Insight

With no foreseeable slowdown in the expanding array of electronic devices at our disposal, making gadgets as energy-efficient as possible could be the only...

With no foreseeable slowdown in the expanding array of electronic devices at our disposal, making gadgets as energy-efficient as possible could be the only way to curb our accompanying exploding appetite for electricity.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) last year issued an urgent call for just such an effort upon releasing the publication, “Gadgets and Gigawatts.” Without aggressive global action, the report warned, energy demand for consumer electronics and information and communications devices could double by 2022 and triple by 2030. That would bring gadget-related electricity use to 1,700 terawatt-hours — as much as is currently consumed by all the households in the US and Japan put together.

Multiplying the efficiency of today’s electronics could help prevent such out-of-control growth, and that’s exactly what a new European research initiative aims to do. Spearheaded by Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and IBM, among other organisations, the Steeper project has a target of making devices 10 times more energy-efficient than they are currently when in operation. Another goal is to virtually eliminate electricity consumption for gadgets when they are in passive or standby mode.

Other organisations involved in the project include Infineon, Global Foundries, the research institutes CEA-LETI and Forschungszentrum Jülich, and the universities of Bologna, Dortmund, Udine and Pisa, with and managerial support from SCIPROM.

Researchers working on the Steeper project compare the transistors used in today’s electronics to a leaky water faucet — energy is constantly “leaking” or being lost or wasted in the off-state.  The scientists hope to not only contain the “leak” by developing new ways to close the valve or gate of a transistor more tightly, but find solutions delivering maximum efficiency with less voltage.

Better control of standby energy consumption offers great potential for conservation. Standby power consumption in the European Union, for example, is estimated to account for about 10 per cent of the electricity use in homes and offices. Without improved technologies, that consumption could reach 49 terrawatt-hours per year by 2020, as much electricity as is used annually by Austria, the Czech Republic and Portugal combined.

“Our vision is to share this research to enable manufacturers to build the Holy Grail in electronics, a computer that utilises negligible energy when it’s in sleep mode, which we call the zero-watt PC,” said Adrian M. Ionescu, a professor at the Nanolab of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

“Power dissipation has become one of the major challenges for today’s electronics, particularly as the number of devices used by businesses and consumers multiplies globally,” said Heike Riel, who leads the nanoscale electronics group at IBM Research – Zurich. “By applying our collective research in TFETs (tunnel field effect transistors) with semiconducting nanowires we aim to significantly reduce the power consumption of the basic building blocks of integrated circuits affecting the smallest consumer electronics to massive, supercomputers.”

Project Steeper’s name was inspired by steep slope transistors, novel devices that can provide a much more abrupt transition between the off and on states compared to the transistors used today. The research effort is expected to run through mid-2013.

Dan Ilett