MIT says new mobile chip design will boost energy efficiency by 10x

Researchers claim to have broken through current floor on voltage use by processors

Researchers at MIT have created a new chip design that they claim will be 10 times more energy efficient than the processors currently used in mobile devices.

The new design, which is being unveiled at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco this week, is intended for use in portable electronics, such as cell phones, PDAs and even implantable medical devices.

The key to the improved energy efficiency lies in making the planned chips work at a reduced voltage level, according to a report by Joyce Kwong, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a member of the chip design project team.

Most of the mobile processors now in use operate at about 1 volt, according to Kwong's report. But MIT's new design only requires 0.3 volts, the report said.

"Voltage is critical," said Jim McGregor, an analyst at In-Stat in Scottsdale, Ariz. "All these handheld devices are being asked to do more and more. To be able to decrease voltage lets you increase silicon complexity to handle more functions, and it also increases battery life, which is a critical component in multiple applications."

McGregor explained that when you use the standard equation to calculate how much power a chip will use, the voltage is squared. That means reining in voltage use is a key facet of reducing power consumption. "If voltage increases, you have a huge jump in power consumption," he said. "But if you reduce voltage, you have a similar decrease in power consumption."

Dean McCarron, president of Mercury Research in Cave Creek, Ariz., noted that in the 1960s and early 1970s, an average computer chip used about 12 volts. Ten years ago, that number was down to 5 volts, and it only dropped down to 1 to 2 volts within the past three years, he said.

"Lowering voltage is actually the standard for lowering system power," said McCarron. "The challenge is that when voltage gets to a certain level, generally around 0.8 to 0.9 volts, making the chip work becomes more difficult. You know, 0.9 was thought to be the floor, and these guys have broken through the floor."

Kwong's report said that the new chip design is in the proof-of-concept stage, with researchers at MIT predicting that it could become available "in five years, maybe even sooner."

The MIT researchers worked on the chip design project along with a team from Texas Instruments Inc. The project was funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. MIT officials couldn't be reached today for comment on the size of the grant or the total cost of the project.

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