Even the most energy conscious among us often run into one major obstacle: we need computers. And smart phones. And TVs. We just can't seem to stay away from our energy-sucking electronics. But what if we could tweak microprocessor chips so that they use one million times less energy than today’s computers? It would be a world of nearly guilt-free electronic use—energy-wise, at least. What you do on your computer is your own business.
Today's microprocessors are powered by electric currents, which generate a lot of waste heat. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have discovered that microprocessors using tiny magnets (pictured below) for logic, memory, and switching operations would dissipate just 18 millielectron volts of energy per operation at room
temperature. That's a very small amount of electricity. In fact, it's the smallest amount of electricity possible to transmit information—a number known as the Landauer limit.
"In principle, one could, I think, build real circuits that would
operate right at the Landauer limit," said Jeffrey Bokor, a UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering, in a statement. "Even if we could get within
one order of magnitude, a factor of 10, of the Landauer limit, it would
represent a huge reduction in energy consumption for electronics. It
would be absolutely revolutionary."
There are still obstacles to overcome before magnetic microprocessors can be used en masse. One major problem: they still lag in reliability, speed, and performance compared to today's microprocessors. And in a world that expects fast and reliable electronics, that won't sit well. But as computers become ever-more prevalent over the coming decades—and energy consumption grows—we can use all the help we can get.
[Images: Top: Flickr user Lylamerle; Bottom: UC Berkeley]