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NSF Supports Chip Enabling Low-Power Electronics

Low power chip

Low power chip (University of Texas, San Antonio)

1 May 2017. An engineering lab at University of Texas in San Antonio received a grant to assess the commercial potential for a chip that lets electronic devices work with much less power. Ruyan Guo, an electrical engineering professor at UT-San Antonio, was awarded a 6-month $50,000 grant as part of National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, or I-Corps program, supporting technologies with direct commercial use.

Guo and colleagues in the university’s Multifunctional Electronic Materials and Devices Research Lab study the interaction of materials science and electronics affecting the design and performance of electronics, including energy efficiency. As electronics for Internet of Things and wearable devices proliferate, including in medical devices, there’s a greater need for systems to operate at reduced power levels. Lower power consumption extends the life spans of batteries, enables the use of smaller and lighter power sources, and reduces the need to dissipate heat that can build up in these devices.

The grant supports work in Guo’s lab with near-threshold voltage regulators, designing a chip module that reduces power consumption in electronics, but still works with current integrated circuits. Near-threshold voltage is a precise range slightly higher than the minimum threshold, which can be the most efficient level for both power consumption and smooth operation, thus lowering a circuit’s internal operating voltages. The team expects its module will make it possible to design entire system-on-chip devices, without an external power regulator or equivalent software, further reducing a device’s size and weight.

The NSF award will identify commercial opportunities for this technology, which the researchers believe enables a new generation of electronic devices, but which can adapt to current circuit designs and thus build on today’s systems. For example, current mobile phone users will put their devices into low-power mode to extend battery life, which with the UT-San Antonio voltage regulator chip should not be needed, at least not as often. The chip will also make it possible for phones to use smaller batteries, thus reducing their size and weight.

Other potential applications include fire and safety sensors, fitness monitors, and medical devices. “We hope to make a significant leap forward in defibrillators and pacemakers,” says Guo in a university statement. “Invasive surgeries to replace medical devices that are running out of power could become much less frequent.”

I-Corps is a National Science Foundation program that helps academic scientists extend their research into the commercial world, including development of technologies with short-term benefits for the economy or society.  In most cases, academic researchers, with student entrepreneurs and business mentors, form teams that receive training and guidance to move their products or services into the marketplace.

In this instance, the grant appears to support an investigation into commercial possibilities for the technology. As reported by Science & Enterprise in April, however, engineering and business students at UT-San Antonio developing an imaging device that quickly finds veins for blood draws received an I-Corps grant to help start a company to take the device to market.

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