It has been estimated that in the European Union, about ten percent of the electricity used in homes and offices goes to power computers and other electronic devices that are in standby mode. By 2020, that amount could constitute 49 terawatt hours per year, which is almost equivalent to the combined annual electrical consumption of Austria, the Czech Republic and Portugal. The European Union’s just-announced Steeper research initiative squarely addresses such concerns. Its aim is to develop electronics that operate on less than half a volt when in standby, and that are up to ten times more energy-efficient when active.

Coordinated by Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and funded by the EU, Steeper is made up of a consortium of European corporate research organizations, large research institutes and universities. Member scientists will be collaborating on research into the use of semiconducting nanowires for boosting the performance of tunnel field effect transistors (TFETs), for the creation of steep slope transistors.

EPFL likens the metal-oxide semiconductor field effect transistors in today’s electronics to a leaky tap – even when turned off, water still gets through. The purpose of steep slopes is to close that tap more tightly, so much less water (or energy) is able to escape. It is also hoped that when turned on, the new transistors will allow energy to flow more freely and directly, so that less voltage will be required for the same amount of performance.

“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, of consortium member IBM Research-Zurich. “By applying our collective research in TFETs 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.”

Other members of the consortium include corporate research organizations Infineon and Global Foundries, 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 scientific project management group SCIPROM.

Steeper started this June, and will continue for 36 months.