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).