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Can we build a computer that consumes little or no energy?

"Increasing attention is now being paid to the role of energy efficiency in ICT," says Gammaitoni.

Luca Gammaitoni, coordinator of the LANDAUER project, gives his view on the importance of making computing more energy efficient...

Plugging in mobile phones to recharge has become a familiar activity that is carried out by billions of people almost every day. Recharging batteries on portable information and communication technology (ICT) devices is a necessary step to prevent them from losing their power and eventually switching off all functions… quite annoying, indeed.

Equally, anyone who has ever worked with a laptop computer will have felt the wasted heat energy spreading from its processor. Wouldn't it be great if we could build a computer that consumes little or no energy!

The LANDAUER project

In order to solve this conundrum, we need to investigate the way energy is transformed from one form to another when we perform work on machines that are as small as few micrometers or less. This is the goal of 'LANDAUER', one of the Future and Emerging Technology (FET) projects funded by the European Commission (www.landauer-project.eu).

The project, which will reach its conclusion later this year, investigates the ultimate physical limits associated with the way energy is used during computational activity. Its scientific objective is to test the limits of energy dissipation during the operation of the physical switches that represent the basic components of every computer. The project's technological objective is to introduce new conceptual devices that can be operated at these physical limits.

In order to achieve these objectives the LANDAUER project consortium (composed of laboratories in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Portugal) fabricates, tests, and evaluates three classes of new conceptual devices: magnetic-switching nanoparticles, nanomechanical switches, and nanoelectronic stochastic logic gates'.

A global challenge

The trend towards ever smaller and more powerful computing devices has been made possible by continuously striving for higher transistor density. This, however, has led to increases in the amount of energy that is dissipated as heat during computation; this has become a serious practical limitation. According to the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, this is likely to become a major roadblock for future scaling in the next 10-15 years. Consequently, increasing attention is now being paid to the role of energy efficiency in ICT, and a new movement called 'towards zero-power computing' has emerged.

The US National Science Foundation funds the Center for Energy Efficient Electronic Science, which seeks to address the energy efficiency of both basic computing elements and short-to-medium range communication of information between elements. Also, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) is supporting research and development of ultra-low-power spintronics-based VLSI computing chips through its Funding Program for World-Leading Innovative R&D on Science and Technology (FIRST Program).

In Europe, the European Commission - through its FET program - funded seven projects under the 'Minimizing Energy Consumption of Computing to the Limit' call of the EU Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), and has promoted a coordination activity among European laboratories involved in the field.

The dawn of a new revolution?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europe led a cultural and social revolution that changed forever the way we work and live. The invention of heat engines and progress made in the field of thermodynamics were major driving forces behind these historical advancements.

Today, we have the opportunity to help bring about another, similar change in human history. Once again, improving our understanding of how energy is transformed is poised to play a crucial role - the only difference now is the scale: nine orders of magnitude smaller in length. New, unprecedented nanoscale machines, designed for sensing, actuation, and communication will then be within our reach.

To find out more, please visit the LANDAUER project website. You can also follow the project on Facebook and Twitter.

The LANDAUER project also has the following educational activities planned for 2015:

- Summer school in Fiuggi, Italy, from 7 to 11 July.

- One-day training course in Bristol, UK, on 14 September.

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