By 2014 it is estimated that 2 billion computers will be in use. In terms of energy consumption this equals the power to run the entire country of India for one year.
In the European Union it is estimated that standby power also known as, vampire power, accounts for about 10% of the electricity use in homes and offices of its member States -- this will rise to 49 terrawatt hours per year - nearly equivalent to the annual electricity consumption for Austria, Czech Republic and Portugal combined.
How much more pressure will be on the grid as consumers purchase more mobile phones and businesses and governments acquire more supercomputers to make sense of all the data they are collecting?
The numbers are staggering, but there is hope. Today, the European Union has announced a new project consortium called Steeper, made up of corporate R&D labs, including IBM and several Universities in Italy, Switzerland and Germany that are tackling this huge challenge at its smallest element -- the transistor.
During the next 36 months scientists in the consortium will combine their collective know-how to explore and develop tunnel field effect transistors (TFETs) based on semiconducting nanowires. These TFETs will help to significantly reduce the power consumption of the basic building blocks of integrated circuits from the smallest consumer electronics to massive supercomputers.
To explain the challenge, consider a leaky water faucet -- even after closing the valve as far as possible water continues to drip -- this is similar to today’s transistor, in that energy is constantly "leaking" or being lost or wasted in the off-state. In Steeper, scientists not only hope to contain the leak by using a new method to close the valve or gate of the transistor more tightly, but also open and close the gate for maximum current flow with less turns, i.e. less voltage for maximum efficiency.
“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 Dr. Heike Riel, who leads the nanoscale electronics group at IBM Research - Zurich. “By applying our collective research in 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.”
Scientist believe they can reduce power consumption in electronic devices when they are in use by a factor of 10. Even more amazing is that they believe they can reduce the power consumption to nearly zero when these same devices are in stand-by or sleep mode. This means cheaper electric bills and longer battery life for laptops, cameras and mobile phones and less pressure on the aging electrical grid.
The science behind Steeper
To achieve this, scientists will study the development of so-called tunnel FETs based on silicon (Si), silicon-germanium (SiGe) and III-V semiconducting nanowires. Nanowires are cylindrical structures measuring only a few nanometers (nm) in diameter, which allow optimum electrostatic control of the transistor channel. In a tunnel FET quantum mechanical band-to-band tunneling is exploited to switch on the device and thus achieve a steeper turn-on characteristics compared to conventional MOSFETs.
“Our vision is to share this research to enable manufacturers to build the Holy Grail in electronics, a computer that utilizes negligible energy when it’s in sleep mode, which we call the zero-watt PC,” said Prof. Adrian M. Ionescu, Nanolab, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, who is coordinating the project. With the support of the European Commission’s 7th Framework Program (FP7), project Steeper scientists will explore novel nanoscale building blocks for computer chips that aim to reduce the operating voltage to less than 0.5 Volt, thus reducing their power consumption by one order of magnitude.
The project started in June 2010 and will continue for 36 months. Coordinated by Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Project Steeper includes leading corporate research organizations IBM Research - Zurich and Infineon, large research institutes CEA-LETI and Forschungszentrum Jülich, academic partners, University of Bologna, University of Dortmund, University of Udine and the University of Pisa and the managerial support of SCIPROM.