Monday, 17 March 2008 15:49

Ten times more energy-efficient microchip recharges itself

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Researchers at MIT and Texas Instruments have designed a new chip that they claim could be up to 10 times more energy-efficient than the current generation. The power consumption in the new chip is so low that devices using them may even be able to be recharged by human body heat.

The MIT researchers claim in a university report that implantable medical devices such as pacemakers and health monitors using the new chip could be powered indefinitely by a person's body heat or motion without the need for a battery.

At the very least, however, the researchers say the new technology could lead to cell phones, handheld computers, and remote sensors that last far longer when running from a battery.

According to Anantha Chandrakasan, the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering, the key to the improvement in energy efficiency was finding ways to make the circuits on the chip work at a voltage level much lower than usual. While most current chips operate at around 1.0 volt, the new design works at just 0.3 volts.

"Memory and logic circuits have to be redesigned to operate at very low power supply voltages," says Chandrakasan, who directs the MIT Microsystems Technology Laboratories, where the work was conducted.

One key to the new chip design, Chandrakasan says, 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 solution.

So far the new chip is at the proof of concept stage. Commercial applications could become available "in five years, maybe even sooner, in a number of exciting areas," Chandrakasan says. For example, portable and implantable medical devices, portable communications devices, and networking devices could be based on such chips and thus have greatly increased operating times.


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 (the research was funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

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," Chandrakasan says—using the body's own heat or movement to provide all the needed power. In addition, the technology could be suitable for body area networks or wirelessly enabled body sensor networks.

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Stan Beer

 

Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.

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