Engineering School Receives Federal Grant to Develop Energy-Efficient Computer Chips

Jan. 15, 2010Bookmark and Share
Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science has been awarded $2.8 million from the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop energy-efficient computer chips. Kenneth Shepard, a professor of electrical engineering, serves as the leader of the project, which aims to reduce electricity consumption by the technology sector. The State of New York is providing an additional $280,000 in matching funds for the effort. Columbia, with collaborators at IBM and Cornell University, is one of 14 recipients of DOE grants aimed at improving energy efficiency in the information technology (IT) and communication technology sectors.
 
A drawing of a toroidal inductor, a reservoir for storing energy in a magnetic field. (Image credit: Kenneth Shepard & Noah Sturcken)
A drawing of a toroidal inductor, an electrical component used for storing energy in a magnetic field. Professor Shepard's group is developing inductors like this that are small enough to fit on a microchip while still holding enough energy to be useful in regulating power.
Image credit: Kenneth Shepard & Noah Sturcken
“These Recovery Act projects will improve the efficiency of a strong and growing sector of the American economy. By reducing energy use and energy costs for the IT and telecommunications industries, this funding will help create jobs and ensure the sector remains competitive,” said DOE Secretary Steven Chu during the announcement of the awards last week. “The expected growth of these industries means that new technologies adopted today will yield benefits for many years to come.”
 
Computer servers in the United States consume more than 50 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. Achieving just a 10 percent energy efficiency gain in processors results in an energy savings of 1.9 billion kilowatt-hours in large servers. “According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates, this amounts to over 1.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emission,” Shepard said.
 
Shepard, along with William E. Bailey, associate professor of materials science and engineering, and Ioannis Kymissis, assistant professor of electrical engineering, will build a power converter small enough to sit atop a silicon chip. Most servers and computers have a single converter that sits off the chip on the main circuit board. The converters lower the voltage of the incoming electric current to a level required by modern processor chips, usually less than one volt. The advantage of having a converter right on the chip is that less electricity will be lost in the transfer process. “You want to bring power into the chip at a higher voltage and step it down just before you need it,” said Shepard.
 
The power converter developed by the Columbia/Cornell/IBM team will make use of magnetic materials, which allow for high density, efficient, on-chip energy storage. 
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