Computers may suck up a lot of power, but we’re not about to throw them overboard—we need them too much. It’s exciting, then, to hear about innovations like the Near Threshold Voltage Processor (code name: Claremont), a low-power Intel chip that can run off a postage stamp-sized solar cell, lemon juice, or a potato and drastically reduce the amount of power a computer uses.
Today’s computer microprocessors run at levels high above the minimum amount—the threshold voltage—needed to make transistors turn on and conduct current. As Intel explains in a blog post: "It is challenging to run electronics reliably at such reduced voltages. To put it simply, the difference between a "1" and a "0" in terms of electrical signal levels becomes very small, so a variety of noise sources can cause logic levels to be misread, leading to functional failures." While a chip can technically run on very little energy—like the energy from a potato—it tends to get confused if it tries to.
The Claremont chip runs at 400 to 500 millivolts, which is right near the minimum. There’s always a catch, of course, and in this case the problem is that performance drops when the chip operates near threshold voltage. So Intel designed the chip to only switch to near threshold voltage mode when the computer has a low workload.
Ultimately, this could lead to devices that never have to turn off—instead, they can always remain just barely on, keeping applications and processes open without gobbling up power. And many years down the line, near voltage threshold research might yield zero-power devices that run entirely on tiny amounts of solar energy, vibrations, and ambient wireless signals.
For now, though, Claremont remains a research chip; Intel has no plans for commercial use. But don’t be surprised if one day your iPad or iPhone is powered by just the tiniest bit of energy.