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Upcoming technologies push power revolution

Posted: 23 Jun 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:electronic technologies? power revolution? Moore's Law?

The first 80 or so years of the modern electronics industry focused on making things smaller, faster and cheaper. The predominant technology that can capture the whole essence of this era is Moore's Law, which enabled many technological innovations of the modern world.

Today, electronics is being exploited to accomplish a goal that has not been a concern of the industry in its formative years, but that has implications for the future of the planet: reducing power consumption. The specific goal is to reduce society's reliance on fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, for generating electric power, thereby reducing CO2 emissions that many scientists have fingered as a prime culprit in climate change.

The relationship between the evolution of electronics and power efficiency follows a trend line that predates and is steeper than Moore's Law. Today's average laptop, for example, is massively more energy-efficient than the vacuum-tube computers of the 1950s as measured by computations per kilowatt-hour. Project this trend out a decade, and some believe we'll have laptops that run on ambient light and never need to be plugged in.

Here, we take a look at five electronics technologies that are playing a high-profile role in this power revolution. The list is not a ranking, nor is it definitive; rather, is it a collection of innovations that together will make a difference for the planet.

The transistor: Going 3D
Imagine for a moment that the solid-state revolution had never occurred and we were still living in a world of vacuum-tube computing. Not only would our laptops be much bigger (think, four-bedroom house), but they would require significantly more electricity (about a trillion times more) to perform the same operation.

From the vacuum-tube ENIAC era of the '40s and '50s to the present, computations per kilowatt-hour have doubled every 1.6 years, according to Jonathan Koomey, a consulting professor at Stanford University and co-author of a 2009 paper that details the relationship between computers' energy use and their performance.

Koomey's research noted that ENIAC operated at less than one kiloflops (103 floating-point operations/second) per kilowatt-hour, while today's laptops can theoretically operate at one petaflops (1015 flops)/kWh.

 Computations per kilowatt-hour

Computations per kilowatt-hour. As computers pack more computational power, the energy needed to perform a particular calculation decreases rapidly trend that predates Moore's Law. Today's laptops are one trillion times more energy-efficient than the vacuum tube computers of the '40s. (Source Koomey et al.)

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