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Steeper project hopes to make electronic devices more energy efficient


October 27, 2010

Dr. Heike Riel, who leads the nanoscale electronics group at IBM Research-Zurich, is part of the Steeper project

Dr. Heike Riel, who leads the nanoscale electronics group at IBM Research-Zurich, is part of the Steeper project

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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.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Perhaps if computers didn\'t take so damn long to boot up you wouldn\'t even have to use standby. Also If they really want to help the consumer, create an option to have the thing plugged in and remain off with no power like tv\'s used to be able to do. I have to unplug the tv from the wall if I don\'t want the annoying red light. And then I have to reprogram the thing. Don\'t they have nonvolatile memory that they could use. I don\'t think it should be that dificult, if only the engineers that design such devices are given that parameter they should be able to create something that is reasonably priced.

Paul Anthony

Half a volt [drawn!], when on standby, but what about the current?

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