Intel probes ultra-low power, energy harvesting chips in its labs

Intel R&D teams are investigating how to build system on a chips that draw less than one-thousandth of the power of smartphones and tablet hardware and that could fit inside tiny devices.

Chipmaker Intel is working on designs for ultra-low power chips able to harvest power from the environment around them.

R&D teams at Intel are investigating how to architect system-on-a-chips (SoCs) with a maximum power draw of milli- or microwatts – thousands or millions of times less than the power consumption of tablets and smartphone hardware today.

These ultra-low power systems would sit in sensors and devices a fraction of the size of a phone, designed to collect information from the world, or be worn or carried by people.

Ravi Iyer, senior principal engineer and director of the SoC Platform Architecture group in Intel Labs, said Intel is investigating "how small these devices can get, how low power they need to be and how low cost".

"Today SoCs are targetted at devices like smartphones and because they're targetted at these kind of devices they are optimised for a different power/performance portfolio. We're saying 'Let's go one level lower', where the device has to be really small," he said speaking at a briefing ahead of the 2013 Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

Getting a device's power consumption down to micro and milliwatt levels, necessary to ensure the device could last for weeks on a battery able to fit into its tiny form factor, requires stripping back SoCs to only the components they need to carry out a specific task, he said.

For example an SoC consuming only microwatts could serve a device that communicates a person's identity to other devices via NFC. Such a device would only need to have very simple storage, an NFC wireless connection, a microcontroller and some form of energy harvesting ability.

A milliwatt device could be a very simple handheld or wearable device that used voice commands to interact with an online service and displayed the result. This would need an e-ink display, a microphone, Bluetooth low-energy connection, a microcontroller and some form of energy harvesting.

The behaviour of these low-power platforms would also need to be tailored to the task they were carrying out, so they wouldn't consume any more power than they had to.

For instance, Iyer said a device that monitors body temperature might spend most of its time "asleep" in a very low energy state and wake up every few second to capture the temperature and send that data back to a server for storage and processing.

Energy harvesting techniques Intel is investigating include solar, radio frequency broadcasting, converting vibrations to energy using piezoelectric and thermoelectrics, he said.

Currently competitors to Intel, such as UK chip designer ARM, are well represented in the low-power, embedded computing chip market, with 4.1 billion embedded processors based on ARM-based Risc architectures shipped last year.

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