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TI, MIT develop design technique for ultralow-voltage ICs

Posted: 08 Feb 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:design technique? low-power ICs? MCU? microcontroller? high-efficiency DC-to-DC conversions?

A new design technique for low-power ICs has been developed by engineers from Texas Instruments Inc. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

TI claims its 16bit MCU is the world's lowest-power device, but a new version implementing an experimental design technique conceived at the MIT promises another 10-fold cut in power consumption. The new low-power chip design will be described by TI and MIT engineers at the International Solid State Circuits Conference. "These design techniques show great potential for future low-power integrated circuits," said Dennis Buss, chief scientist at TI.

The design technique works by powering parts of the chip at just 0.3V, or as much as 10 times less power than normal. This was accomplished by designing on-chip, high-efficiency DC-to-DC conversions to operate circuitry that normally hogs current. The SoC solution required redesigning select memory and logic circuits to operate at the lower voltage.

Another key to the design was overcoming processing variations on chips, since even the slightest variations are exaggerated by the ultralow-power operating voltage.

"A big part of our strategy was designing the chip to minimize its vulnerability to such variations," said Anantha Chandrakasan, team leader and a professor of electrical engineering at MIT.

TI and MIT engineers will demonstrate the new design technique using TI's MSP430 MCU, but claim it can also be used to redesign key circuitry in a wide variety of chips. These include devices ranging from cellphones to medical implants to wireless sensor networks. Portable devices based on the technique could increase battery life by a factor of 10, according to the developers, and some could even run off of energy harvested from the environment.

Coming in five years
The design technique could show up "in five years, maybe even sooner," said Chandrakasan.

Medical implants are an especially attractive application, according to Chandrakasan, because the ultra-low voltages could be harvested from the "ambient energy" in a patient's body, thereby powering medical implants indefinitely without batteries.

Portable devices could also be based on the new design technique, according to Chandrakasan, as well as military applications such as ultrasmall wireless sensor networks that could draw power from the environment after deployment on the battlefield.

Research funding for the project was provided by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and TI.

- R.Colin Johnson
EE Times

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