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The role of semiconductors in energy conservation

Posted: 04 Feb 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:blog? semiconductor? conservation energy?

By Rick Zarr
The Energy Zarr Blog

Zarr: Now it's time to leverage that technology in saving energynot just consuming it.

I've been hearing a great deal about how various technologies will be deployed to help reduce our carbon foot print as well as provide a sustainable energy future for allthese include alternative energy generation, smart grids, new solid state lighting, and more. The most interesting thing is that underlying all of those technologies (and many others) are the semiconductors that provide the computational engines, the sensing and signal conditioning as well as the power conversion. It is the humble "chip" that defines the semiconductor industry and has made such amazing strides in the last 50 years since its debut. Now it's time to leverage that technology in saving energynot just consuming it.

Without semiconductors, very few of our modern technologies would exist. It would either be impossible to manufacture them or they would simply be too complex to implement (think "mechanical or vacuum tube" based computers). Today with energy on everyone's mind, conservation is in the forefront along with improved efficiency. If you consider that almost no one owned a computer in 1981 (except geeks like me), the conversion efficiency of the power supplies were not a major issuecost might have been a higher priority. However, today just about everyone has at least one computer and the energy consumption of the system is a high priority. Building computing platforms that use less energy is a focus for the major microprocessor vendors as well as the system designers.

Extending the view out into the Internet, the picture becomes cloudy on exactly where the power is going. However it is going somewhere and in gigantic quantities. Yahoo and Google both are building new data centers in the Pacific Northwest to move closer to sources of hydroelectric power which is (for now) plentiful and less expensive. With the growth of the Internet continuing for the foreseeable future, the power consumed by this infrastructure will continue to climb. Estimates are that by 2050 an additional 300 gigawatt power plants (coal, nuclear, natural gas, etc.) will need to be built to support the increasing consumption of electrical power.

So, if the semiconductor industry has enabled so much through higher levels of integration and performance, why can't the next big challenge be to make these systems more energy efficient? I have no doubt that is exactly the thought on everyone's mind. In the past, the goal was to put as many active devices on a single "chip" as possible. Today, a billion transistors is standard operating procedure. Now the goal is to reduce how much energy each transistor uses to do the same job. New technology such as quantum well transistors holds the promise to reduce the energy consumed to around 1/10th of today's modern CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) transistors. Other technologies such as carbon nano-tubes will also play a role, but we may not see the fruits of these technologies for another 5-10 years.

So, remember while you're talking on your cellular phone or watching that brand new 50" flat panel HDTVwithout the semiconductor industry most of modern life would not existand the future is more dependant on the success of that industry than most think. Till next time

- Rick Zarr is the chief technologist of PowerWise Solutions at National Semiconductor.





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