Designing Electronic Brains to Think Green

When it comes to semiconductors, everyone in the chip world is thinking green. But let’s face it: It’s a lot sexier to talk about “green” server chips used in data centers consuming 1.5 percent of the nation’s energy than about reducing plug loads with chips that convert A/C to D/C power with less waste.

But we’re going to try. I spend a lot of time talking to chip designers, and I can tell you that energy efficiency is a top priority, from the people making chips for routers to those making chips for consumer electronics. It’s not just about making the semiconductors consume less energy, but also using them to control how much power an end device needs.

Lisa Su, CTO for Freescale, says designing for power efficiency has become a priority in all lines of the chip-making business, even those that aren’t reliant on battery power (power efficiency has obviously been a priority in the laptop and cell phone world as a way to extend battery life). Freescale is making power management chips that help make cellular base stations more energy efficient. It also makes microcontrollers that are used in half of the new vehicles sold today; they coordinate chips monitoring tire pressure, engine performance and other factors affecting a car’s fuel efficiency in order to cut emissions.

In a similar vein, NXP has a video processor combined with software to make LCD televisions more energy efficient by controlling the brightness of the backlight and dimming it when it it isn’t needed. Fairchild Semiconductor makes chips that govern how fast motors in home appliances run; it also allows manufacturers to build devices using variable speed motors that draw 40 percent less power than those that use a continual speed.

These are early days for electronics makers thinking about ways they can conserve power, which means efforts by semiconductors and electronics makers are just beginning. But it’s encouraging to see one of the key component makers in the appliance and device world starting to think green.