Technologies for the Future of Green ICT
There is a rich global mix of advanced concepts and technologies emerging from research labs that may improve the future sustainability of ICT equipment and infrastructures. We'll regularly update this post with technologies to watch. (You can see all the technologies which hold the promise of greener ICT in the future by clicking the 'FutureTech' tag, above.) Our latest is research into a phone that can charge itself from ambient radio-waves…maybe.
The Guardian (UK) reported back in 2009 that Nokia is working on a prototype phone charger "able to power itself on nothing more than ambient radiowaves – the weak TV, radio and mobile phone signals that permanently surround us. The power harvested is small but it is almost enough to power a mobile in standby mode indefinitely without ever needing to plug it into the mains...Individually the energy available in each of these signals is miniscule. But by harvesting radiowaves across a wide range of frequencies it all adds up...Wireless charging is not intended as a sole energy source, but rather to be used in conjunction with other energy harvesting technologies, such as handset casings embedded with solar cell materials." This technique seems dependent on a high density of signals, limiting its potential to urban areas in developed counties.
When the story broke in 2009, the MIT Technology Review quoted a Nokia researcher as saying, “I would say it is possible to put this into a product within three to four years." It is now four years since The Guardian and the Tech Review articles and we could find no recent updates. Yet the original story seems to have enjoyed new life in August 2013 on social media, with all citations tracing back to the 2009 stories. There are cautionary tales here about both the promise of cutting edge technology and the acuity of social media.
US company ETA Devices is working on very efficient amplifiers using Asymmetric Multilevel Outphasing (AMO) developed at MIT. "Instead of wasting a majority of the power as heat, AMO boasts an average efficiency exceeding 70%; this is markedly better than the 45% efficiency currently achieved by best-in-class Doherty power amplifiers." The company sees great benefits for mobile operators. "A majority of currently deployed base stations only achieve efficiency levels of around 20 to 30% while best-in-class base stations still only operate at 40 to 45% efficiency levels. The remainder of the power is wasted as heat…Power consumption is a very significant cost for mobile operators representing 18 to 50% of total OPEX…The low power consumption means that base stations in developing countries can be fully solar powered using on-site photovoltaic cells." Eta also sees its low-power amplifiers "delivering up to double the battery life in smartphones." The company demonstrated an AMO-based amplifier in February 2013.
A March 2013 article in the MIT Technology Review describes IBM's research on a liquid transistor. "The researchers showed that passing a voltage across electrolyte-filled nanochannels pushes a layer of ions—or charged atoms—against an oxide material, a reversible process that switches that material between a conducting and nonconducting state, thus acting as a switch or storing a bit, or a basic '1' or '0' of digital information…the method could someday allow for very energy-efficient computing…the devices can be switched ‘on’ and ‘off’ permanently without the need for any power to maintain these states…This could be used to create highly energy-efficient memory and logic devices of the future…a small prototype circuit based on the idea is two to four years off…"
IBM Researchers published a March 2013 paper demonstrating the feasibility of a fiber optic link using a vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser (VCSEL) semiconductor to achieve very fast transmission at very low power consumption: "pJ/bit at 25Gb/s and 2.7pJ/bit at 35Gb/s." Very low-power components are critical to achieving exascale computing. DARPA, which is pursuing exascale computing, funded the IBM research.
Alta Devices claims that it "manufactures the world's thinnest and highest efficiency solar cells using Gallium Arsenide…Generating 3 to 4 times more energy than any other thin and flexible solar technology, [these cells make] mobile power for consumer devices a reality." The company notes their technology's potential in "remote areas, off the grid areas or during disasters", making it potentially attractive to developing areas in which the growth of wireless telecommunications is outstripping the availability of the electrical grid.
IEEE Spectrum reports that researchers at Columbia University "…have developed a nanoscale chip that requires so little energy in transmitting wireless signals that the batteries may never need to be replaced…" The research is part of a program to make energy self-reliant tags that can be attached to common objects. "The unique pulsed nature of the signal allows for new ways to communicate with ultra-low power consumption. For example, if you wanted to communicate at a rate of 2Mbit/sec, the chips send 3- to 4-nanosecond-wide pulses 500 ns apart. This means that for up to 95 percent of the time in between pulses, the electronics can be shut down to save power. As a result, the Columbia team’s latest chip only needs to consume 375 pJ (picojoule) of energy to receive a bit." The chip is a prototype at this point.
Microsoft researchers report, "Location is a fundamental service for mobile computing. Typical GPS receivers, although widely available, consume too much energy to be useful for many applications. Observing that in many sensing scenarios, the location information can be post-processed when the data is uploaded to a server, we design a Cloud-Offloaded GPS (CO-GPS) solution that allows a sensing device to aggressively duty-cycle its GPS receiver and log just enough raw GPS signal for postprocessing. Leveraging publicly available information such as GNSS satellite ephemeris and an Earth elevation database, a cloud service can derive good quality GPS locations from a few milliseconds of raw data. Using our design of a portable sensing device platform called CLEO, we evaluate the accuracy and efficiency of the solution. Compared to more than 30 seconds of heavy signal processing on standalone GPS receivers, we can achieve three orders of magnitude lower energy consumption per location tagging."
It is unlikely that total power consumption is reduced when communications and server power consumption are factored in, but lowering device consumption has can extend battery life. Smaller and less-frequently replaced batteries, in turn, can have a positive impact on the sustainability of a device's total life-cycle.
We've covered the growing use of wind to power ICT. Now, an article on the Scientific American site describes an Apple patent for "a wind turbine that converts rotational energy from turbine blades into heat, which is then stored and used to generate electricity when necessary…If it's efficient and cheap enough, Apple's turbine system could solve a piece of the renewable energy puzzle that has prevented intermittent sources like solar power and wind from being used more widely: storage--in this case, heat that's stored in fluid." Why Apple's interest in wind energy? The article speculates, "[Apple] wants to mitigate the impact of its energy-sucking data centers, which are becoming increasingly important to the company's strategy, as more and more people sign up for iTunes or start using iCloud to store their data remotely." View patent.
The recyclability of electronics became a big issue this year due to concerns that manufacturing techniques to cram more capability into smaller devices will lessen lifecycle sustainability. Here are novel approaches to the problem, from biomimicing "Super Velcro" to attach components, to printed circuit boards that can be dissolved in hot water, to super-heating flash memory to extend its life cycle 10,000X.
IEEE Spectrum observes that flash memory "…wears out after being programmed and erased about 10 000 times. That’s fine for a USB dongle that you’ll probably lose in a year, but not ideal for the solid-state drives of server farms. And the same problem keeps manufacturers from using flash to replace other types of computer memories…Macronix engineers…redesigned a flash memory chip to include tiny onboard heaters that could anneal small groups of memory cells…The modified structure enables current to pass through the transistor’s gate to generate pulses of heat a few milliseconds long. Researchers found that temperatures exceeded 800 °C but that the hot spot was restricted to the area near the gate. The chips were able to heal themselves through this onboard annealing to the point that even after 100 million cycles, the researchers claim, the memories held data well."
Janine Benyus is a pioneer in the field of biomimicry, the science of studying natural models to solve human problems. The New York Times reports, "Myriad plants and animals use Velcro-like attachments, [Janine Benyus] says, and engineers are now studying nature to learn how to create a “super-Velcro” that would be strong enough to fuse the pieces of a computer…She points out that super-Velcro offers a lesson in sustainability. 'If we were able to put the parts of a computer together with gecko tape, or insect tape, we could send the computer back to the manufacturer, and they could disassemble it and reuse different parts or recycle it easier.' Benyus says. 'Glue actually contaminates recyclables. We throw things in a landfill just because they’re glued together. Instead, we should take our machines apart and use the building blocks again.'"
The UK's "…National Physical Laboratory (NPL), along with partners In2Tec Ltd (UK) and Gwent Electronic Materials Ltd, have developed a printed circuit board (PCB) whose components can be easily separated by immersion in hot water. The work was part of the ReUSE [Reuseable Unzippable Sustainable Electronics] project, funded by the UK government's Technology Strategy Board…the project demonstrated a 90% recyclable inverter circuit…"
Photonics.com reported that University of Bristol scientists have demonstrated that "it is possible to recycle the photons inside a quantum computer so that quantum factoring can be achieved using only one-third of the particles originally required…Quantum computers…can efficiently factor large numbers, but the physical resources required make such devices difficult to construct. '…this proof-of-principle experiment paves the way for larger implementations of quantum algorithms by using particle recycling,' said Enrique Martín-López, a doctoral candidate at the university’s Centre for Quantum Photonics."