23 October 2008
The Sophia Antipolis Microelectronics (SAME) Forum is always refreshing in that it takes a holistic approach to the electronics industry. Addressing this year’s theme: Green Electronics – Innovation in the Environmental Revolution, speakers covered a broad range of issues, from renewable and sustainable energy sources down to low power design techniques at the IP block level, covering applications from server farms, buildings and transport, down to ingestable medical devices.
Clearly, server farms are the new ‘bad guys’ in the ICT sector, consuming as much energy as a small city. Their uncool image – in all senses of the word – is on par with SUVs in a world gone crazy about energy efficiency.
But while consumers may opt for a more fuel efficient vehicle next time around, we are most certainly not going to reduce our reliance on the connected world.
Several SAME speakers pointed out that, luckily, the same electronics empowering the IT sector, is also the key to future energy efficiency and reduced waste throughout industry. Not only that, it will stimulate growth in new markets arising from the green revolution, particularly for energy monitoring, control and management.
Presentations during the two day conference were dotted with alarming statistics:
* more than 30% of the huge amounts of power consumed by consumer electronics is during idle/power off modes
* in California, 15% of energy is consumed converting from ac to dc, with nothing connected
* set top boxes are major contributor to high levels of standby power consumption – 60% of the power used is in standby model
* sending a letter by email requires as much energy as a light bulb consumes in ten minutes
Keynote speaker Ted Vucurevich, pictured, CTO for Cadence Design Systems, summarised the two major challenges facing the industry: reducing power off/idle consumption; and applying intelligence and automation to energy control systems.
On the latter point, Vucurevich astutely remarks: “Electronics can be used to give people the information they need to make informed choices about reducing power consumption.”
Other speakers advocated government intervention, legislation and directives to force the adoption of energy saving schemes. “Introducing legislation is at odds with free market dynamics,” Vucurevich countered. His vote was for (tax) incentives to encourage ‘eco design’ and r&d, and to develop an energy saving culture and ecosystem. Jaques Le Berre, NXP added that energy saving has to be considered through the whole life cycle – during manufacture, in use and recycling.
In the automotive sector, regulation has been successfully applied, Patrick Leteinturier of Infineon pointed out. “Incoming legislation to reduce emissions has led to radical changes in electronics to improve efficiency.” The key application areas, all of which benefit from electronics and IT, are: improved combustion, reduced emissions, drag reduction, energy management, traffic flow management, and importantly, an improved powertrain.
Taking a top down view, Marco Landi of solar energy company Enerqos commented: “The economics have changed: increasing oil prices, increased demand from new markets and global warming concerns – they all create a demand for clean, sustainable energy.”
He reckons the worldwide solar energy market is booming, with Southern Europe representing huge potential. Buildings, transport and battery power, he sees as the primary applications. “Renewable energy is a sustainable growth industry. Governments need clear and predictable policies, and tax incentives to encourage adoption,” he concluded.
Down at the chip level, solar power is a factor under consideration. TI, for example, is a keen advocate, as it complements its drive towards ultra low power electronics. “The challenge is converting solar power into usable energy efficiently at low power levels,” said François Malléus, TI’s analogue business director.
Continuing the ‘light’ theme, NXP is targeting (among other areas) lcd backlighting as a low power drive. “The shift from crt to flat screens provides performance advantages, but is still heavy on power,” Le Berre said. “The key is to only apply backlighting where it is needed.” Smarter electronics can switch off white light to give dark screen areas when needed.
Two further somewhat radical – but not new – suggestions for power saving became recurring themes during the course of SAME: removing the battery from the product; and removing the clocks from the circuitry.
Finding a battery replacement has long been on the engineer’s ‘wish list’, but viable options are thin on the ground. Depending on the application, possible solutions include solar power and biofuels for vehicles. But for portable electronics devices, the answer is in energy scavenging and harvesting techniques, according to TI and others.
On the show floor, TI was promoting its latest technology announcement, a demonstration kit based on microcontroller, rf technology for data collection and transmission, and the Joule-Thief energy harvesting device, which uses piezo technology to convert power generated by ambient vibrations.
Dr Dennis Buss, TI’s chief scientist, confirmed that research into ultra low power technology was yielding promising results. “We can get down to 0.5V operating voltages already and, at 0.65nm, we will get to 0.3V. Of course, you can’t run very fast at this level, maybe 500kHz. But then you don’t need to for many emerging applications,” he explained. “Ultra low power is as big a potential market in the medical market as cell phones were for the consumer. In wearable electronics, the battery is now the weak spot – we need to get rid of it,” he added.
At least two firms – Silistix and start up Elastix – were promoting asynchronous design and clockless design as a means of minimising the power budget. Is this an idea that will finally take off? Vucurevich sees it as an opportunity and a challenge. “For ultra low power, it is the only way to go, but it needs to be applied correctly,” he warned.
Down at the chip level, there were many overlapping discussions and detailed technical papers covering a host of techniques – such as dynamic voltage and frequency scaling and clock gating – to reduce leakage current as designs moved to smaller nodes. An alternative approach, of course, is to move to multicore.
TI again, is a strong supporter and has recently introduced new multicore platforms combining proprietary processors, ARM controllers and floating point dsps. “High density cmos gives us the ability to turn off unused blocks to save energy as well as effecting more efficient computation,” Dr Buss pointed out. Even in ‘plugged’ applications, mixed signal multicore design can reduce standby power by two thirds.
Software defined radio (SDR) is another application that requires low power and multicore technology benefits, according to TI. Early SDR implementations will be in police, security forces, military communications systems, Dr Buss predicts. “But there remain technology challenges, particularly in antenna design and filtering – we definitely need a tunable rf filter,” he added.
The discussion on power optimisation tools to support the green revolution delivered the message that such tools need to operate at a higher level of design abstration. “Dynamic power analysis is the hammer and chisel approach,” said Vucurevich. “We need a power optimisation flow covering simulation and closure, assessing design stability, and hierarchical issues. “Design tools are improving in this respect,” he hinted.
Meanwhile, Jean-Marie Saint-Paul of Mentor Graphics observed: “You need to trace your power spec from top to bottom in a design, which needs the right tools and methodologies.” Certainly, the need for high level models and modelling methods was mentioned more than once.
The move to multicore and the need for parallel programming and optimising compilers is emphasising the need for a true codesign methodology, Mentor believes. “We need a unified approach to high level modelling and tool development,” corroborated John Bainbridge of Silistix.
On the show floor, quietly demonstrating hardware/software codesign was Altium. Following its acquisition of Tasking, it offers an extensive and integrated tool suite covering fpga and board design, layout, verification, hardware prototyping and software development. And it is low cost too!
Cadence Design Systems Ltd
Infineon Technologies AG
Mentor Graphics (UK) Ltd
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