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Thanks to the Steeper project conducted by EPFL, electronic devices should in future consume 10 times less energy when functioning, and almost nothing when in standby mode.
From mobile telephones to supercomputers, and including laptops and television sets, the number of electronic devices is growing alarmingly together and, in parallel, their energy consumption. To respond to this trend, a large-scale initiative involving several major research institutions from the academic world and industry, and led by EPFL, has been launched. Nicknamed STEEPER, this project aims to cut down by a factor of 10 the energy consumption of these devices when they are functioning, and to virtually eliminate any energy consumption when they are in passive or standby mode.
With support from the 7th Framework Programme of the European Commission (FP7), scientists will be able to explore innovative modules on the nanometer scale for electronic chips, to bring down their operating voltage to less than 0.5 volts; this means lowering their electricity consumption by approximately 10-fold.
By reducing power consumption, STEEPER is taking a first step towards the "zero-watt" PC - "the Holy Grail of electronics", as Adrian M. Ionescu, Professor at the EPFL Nanolab and project coordinator, calls it. The long-term objective of this scientist is a form of electronics that is virtually autonomous, taking its energy from external phenomena such as solar, thermal or electromagnetic sources. This ambitious project, called NanoPCo, is scheduled for submission to Brussels, as a candidate for the research program FET Flagship.
Energy waste, the biggest challenge
"Energy waste is about to become the biggest challenge in electronics today, and in particular in the computer industry." This is the conclusion of Dr Heike Riel, researcher in charge of the nanoelectronic group at IBM Research in Zurich, and also involved in the project.
The development of innovative devices, such as steep slope transistors (hence the project name) can enable a much shorter transition between the "off" and "on" modes than is possible with the current 60mV/decade limit of metal-oxide-semiconductor, field-effect transistors (MOSFETs) at room temperature.
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