How Switzerland is leading the quest to green information technologies
Low power for critical apps
Body SensorsThanks to ultra low power electronic devices, the Guardian Angels research project envsions wireless body sensor neworks to improve health.
Wearable electronic Movement or temperature differences may be a sufficient source of energy to be harvested by sensing and communicating devices embedded in clothes.
Emotion As an ultimate goal, Guardian Angels envisions that wireless body sensor networks feed by ultra energy efficient electronic may support communication between people.
Smart monitoring With no batteries to load regularly wireless body sensors network may prove the solution to monitor kids or elderly activities and conditions as well as part of the environment.
For the past 45 years, Moore’s law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, has been the driving force in information technology. Every two years the number of transistors placed on an integrated circuit has approximately doubled. But the energy efficiency of chips and computers has not seen the same dramatic improvement. Now, with the Internet and the physical limits of batteries for mobile devices driving a dramatic expansion in data centres, energy efficiency is becoming a key issue for IT. Electronic devices of all kinds represent already 15% of household electricity consumption, according to the International Energy Agency. Worldwide, this is set to double by 2022 and triple by 2030 to reach 1,700 terawatt-hours, equivalent to the European Union’s entire electricity consumption in 2009! The billion-euro flagship
In his office at the Swiss Centre for Microelectronics in Neuchâtel, Professor Nico de Rooij smiles broadly when those issues are raised during an interview. As head of the Institute of Microengineering, now a decentralised department of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne (EPFL), de Rooij, a pioneer in low-power – that is, energy efficient – electronics, is preparing to join a major research initiative whose ultimate goal is to reduce computers’ power consumption by a factor of ten.
Tagged as “Guardian Angels for a smarter planet”, this ambitious goal will be a candidate for Europe’s prestigious new research funding mechanism: the FET Flagship Initiatives. Two of those “super research” programmes are due to be selected this year and next. If successful, the Swiss initiative may boost the Green IT research budget to the tune of €100 million a year over 10 years. It will also trigger all kinds of new applications. The foundation for this IT ambition lies in Lausanne, at the EPFL. It began with a more classical European research project at the EPFL that started in June 2010, supported by the FP7 Framework Programme. Called STEEPER, that project aims to develop innovative modules at the nanometre scale for electronic chips, with the aim of bringing their operating voltage down to less than 0.5 volts.
“For the past 40 years electronics circuitry has been shrinking. But the voltage supplying those circuits has hardly changed,” explains Adrian Ionescu, a professor at the EPFL’s Nanolab and the project’s coordinator. “Technically, the result is an increased power leakage in the field effect transistors (MOSFETs) used in chips since the 1970s. Therefore, we are starting to lose the advantage of miniaturisation”. The leaking smart phone
A good example comes from the multi-core microprocessors that embed billions of transistors, where electricity is still consumed when the circuit is off. And with the increased number of battery-powered mobile devices such as smart phones, the issue is starting to prove critical for manufacturers. Ionescu estimates that “around 10% of the electricity consumption of such devices occurs when it is apparently off”.
STEEPER is a first attempt to understand the physical principles needed to build transistors that really do turn off. “Our lab has started to explore a quantum effect known as band-to band tunnelling in order to build transistors that do not leak electricity,” says Ionescu. “This will lead to transistors that cut the current perfectly when the circuit is off but that also could be powered with much less electricity when in the conduction state. This is likely to lower the overall electricity consumption because consumption is highly dependent on the electrical voltage.”
But it takes more than designing new low-power transistors to convince the cost-driven semiconductor industry to adopt them. “One of our challenges was to demonstrate that such technology can be built on the same manufacturing platform used currently in the chip industry,” explains Ionescu. The technology is driving researchers to build nanowires on silicon. “In the long run this may lead to a new kind of electronic switch that may reduce the electricity consumption of computers and smart phones not by 10% but by a factor of 10,” predicts Ionescu. “What about smart phones that can run for two weeks instead of two days?” That long-term goal is what is driving Ionescu and his partners to use the three-year STEEPER programme as a building block for the more ambitious Guardian Angels project.
EPFL’s Nanolab is coordinating the STEEPER project, but it is not alone. It has established partnerships with labs at the University of Dortmund in Germany and Pisa, Bologna and Udine in Italy. In order to manufacture prototypes, it has also two other main partners. IBM’s Zurich-based laboratory is taking the high risk/high reward path of building nanowire switches with new semiconductor materials known as Type 300. In Grenoble, France, the CEA Leti has an alternative manufacturing strategy, integrating the technology on silicon with partners such as Infineon and Global Foundries.
IONESCU-HIEROLD The Nanolab’s director at EPFL (left) and ETHZ professor Christofer Hierold are co-leading the Guardian Angels research project.
Toward the “zero watt PC”
Because of prior research at the EPFL, the 10 million Swiss franc STEEPER research project is already quite advanced. IBM has produced new nanowires. CEA Leti is currently building its first components in silicon. Meanwhile, Ionescu has discovered that other promising research in Swiss labs may help to build the kind of incredibly energy-efficient electronic devices, such as the “zero watt PC”, that are part of the Guardian Angels vision. One of these research leads is to be found at de Rooij’s labs in Neuchâtel. There Danick Briand and his colleagues are working on energy-harvesting technologies that could power miniaturised circuits like MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) and systems on chips. “Watch makers found techniques a century ago to harvest energy and avoid batteries,” explains de Rooij – such as automatic watches or, more recently, Swatch solar-powered watches. “We are following the same path, except we are going for extreme miniaturisation.”
In his lab Briand demonstrates some of the new energy harvesters that will be part of the Flagship candidate project. Using high performance piezoelectric materials developed by the team of Professor Jean Marc Triscone at the University of Geneva as part of the Swiss research programme NCCR Manep, he is building small cantilevers on silicon. Coiled with the piezoelectric materials, the cantilever vibrations generate electricity. “The difficulty with such piezoelectric devices is to obtain the appropriate resonant frequency matching the one from the mechanical vibrations in the environment,” explains Briand. And the power extracted from vibration is tiny: it is measured in microwatts. That is whyhis team s is devising all kind of strategies to best exploit the energy harvested.
Briand thinks that energy harvesters may in the future power autonomous circuits such as RFID tags, sensors in building and the future ‘Internet of Things’. “One can also envision modular systems with various types of energy harvesters to make the most of various environments,” says Briand. One solution may be thermal. Co-leading the Guardian Angels initiative, Swiss Federal Institute of Zurich’s Professor Christofer Hierold is developing technologies to harvest energy from waste heat. His group has miniaturised those systems to generate thermoelectricity on MEMS. This research has led recently to the creation of a spin-off: GreenTEG. The company will manufacture thermoelectric generators (TEGs) and cooling elements (TECs) in a totally new manner, resulting in flexible and low cost thermoelectric devices. Briand underlines also that “piezo and thermo systems can be complementary to solar energy, especially in environments where the access to light is limited.”Infineon, IBM and Intel gather behind the Swiss flag
As often with frontier research, the technology envisioned with Guardian Angels may lead not just to dramatically increased energy efficiency but also to new applications – such as wireless body sensor networks developed by EPFL Professor David Atienza, who is also part of the Guardian Angels project. His group at the Embedded Systems Laboratory at EPFL has developed a real-time electro-cardiogram (ECG) monitoring system based on wireless body sensor networks (so-called WBSNs). A node performs all the signal acquisition and data processing on the ECG signal (coming from electrodes) and then transmits the results wirelessly to an iPhone, which displays the results graphically. “If the node detects any problem in the signal (e.g., a heart condition or irregularity in the heartbeats), it can inform the iPhone, which will send a notification via SMS to, for example, a doctor, who can then see the same signal shown on the iPhone,” explains Atienza.
The Guardian Angels concept will extend this initial idea for ECG monitoring with multiple bio-signals (and sensing nodes) to gain a much more detailed view of the physical and wellbeing status of the person wearing them. “Guardian Angels will exploit the biological properties of the different bio-signals at system level to reduce the amount of data to be sensed, processed and transmitted (like using «compressed sensing» for biosignals), which will enable much better energy efficiency,” says Atienza. “Eventually, even the battery will be removed and the WBSN should be able to operate solely on energy scavenged from the environment and the human body.”
With radical ambitions in energy efficiency and new applications like wireless body sensor networks in sight, it is no surprise that industrial companies are jumping on board the Guardian Angels project, led by the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology. STEEPER partners such as Infineon and IBM have been in the project from day one; others, such as Geneva-based ST Microelectronics and the Irish subsidiary of Intel as well as Belgium’s IMEC, have now joined. Moreover, professor Giovanni de Micheli, spokesman of the Nano-Tera. ch program observes that the objective of this super program in nanotechnologies “are well aligned with those of Guardian Angels.”
Naturally, with other projects competing for Flagship funding – not least the EPFL-housed Blue Brain project for brain modelling – it is impossible to predict whether Guardian Angels will make it to the end. But Ionescu has a strong argument indicating that the logic behind the project is here to stay. “In electronics, Asia leads in memory and the US in microprocessors. That leaves Europe with leadership in electronics for mobile devices. This strength must be nurtured now by frontier research, be it in energy efficiency or new applications.” The European judges of the new Flagship competition may be sensitive to that competitiveness argument, coming as it does from the non-EU country the European Commission has placed on top of its Innovation Scoreboard.
A window on smart IPv6 buildings
The Mandat Foundation plan to deploy all kinds of green IT technology in its building that accomodates diplomats in Geneva.
Buildings represent the lion’s share of energy consumption, accounting for 40 per cent of total demand. As a result, moves to increase energy efficiency have focused on improvements in all aspects of construction, be it installing photovoltaic panels on the roof, or insulating materials in the walls. The Mandat International Foundation, created 15 years ago to support the participation of delegates attending international conferences and meetings in Geneva, is now planning to build an eleven storey green building with office spaces and budget accomodation for delegates coming from developing countries. “We plan to use a wide range of new energy efficient technologies, making it a showcase of best practices”, says Sebastien Ziegler, executive director of Mandat International. “Because energy efficiency is crucial not only for new buildings but for existing ones, we will demonstrate how ICT technologies can improvie energy efficiency by 30 – 40 per cent by turning our existing building into a smarter one.” Internet of things
Mandat intends to deploy the latest Internet communications protocol- IPv6 – to transform its current building into a smart IPv6 building. Smart, because all kinds of temperature sensors, light actuators, and so on, will be deployed in order to optimise the interactions between users and the heating, lighting and cooling systems. IPv6 will both provide each of these sensors and systems (as it can with any object) with an Internet address, giving them the capacity to communicate, even if they are not based on compatible standards. The so-called ‘Internet of Things’ has already demonstrated its feasibility through a Swiss project. Now it is going international with Hobnet, a 3 million Euros, 3 year European research project, that was kicked off in June 2010. In this project the University of Geneva’s IT centre is working in partnership with the universities of Patras, Edinburgh and Dublin, the telecommunications company Ericsson, and Finnish sensor manufacturer, Sensinode. The Welcome Centre will serve as a test bed with real end user to validate research results. It is supported by personalities such as Vint Cerf, the inventor of the current Internet Protocol and Googles’ board member, and companies eger to participate in what will be the first smart IPv6 buildings in the world. (FD)