Monday, February 20, 2012

Shedding light on energy-efficient electronics

There are two items of consumer electronics that I have owned for over 20 years and I don't intend parting with either of them any-time soon.

They are incredibly useful devices which, despite the fact that most electronic gadgets are usually replaced at ever-shorter intervals, remain as useful today as they were when I first purchased them.

In fact, they have one key feature that few of their contemporary equivalents offer.

They're both solar-powered.

I'm talking about my Casio FX-115 scientific calculator and a small AM/FM radio.

The really great thing about these devices is that I've never had to replace a battery in either of them, despite their many long years of faithful service. I shudder to think how much rubbish and potential pollution this ability to recharge themselves from ambient lighting has eliminated.

Other radios that I have tend to need new batteries at very regular intervals and even rechargeable technologies such as NiMH cells don't completely eliminate the need for periodic replacement. The AA-sized NiMH cells I purchased about seven years ago are already reaching the end of their useful life, holding only a quarter of their rated capacity these days.

Yet, my calculator and solar-powered radio just keep on working.

Some years ago, I predicted that with advances in low-power electronics and more efficient solar cells, we'd eventually see an increasing percentage of electronic devices that were powered by the ambient light in which they are usually found. Unfortunately, this hasn't happened as quickly as I'd hoped -- but...

Intel have announced that their own experimentation into solar-powered processors and memory is delivering very encouraging results.

Although far from being ready for commercial production, the semiconductor giant has also twigged to the potential for modern devices to be self-powered to some degree, if not totally.

With this in mind, Intel intends to demonstrate its "Claremont" concept processor at a conference in San Francisco next week.

While not designed for full-speed operation when powered solely by its inbuilt solar cell, the processor has a "near threshold voltage" (NTV) CPU which can retain its state and even idle along at much lower speeds -- without the need for external power.

The company claims that by entering this near-hibernation state, laptops and other computers could "suspend" operations without drawing power from the main battery.

However, I expect bigger things from this technology and I have no doubt that before too long, many tablet computers will boast an integrated display, touchscreen, solar panel -- all rolled into one. They will recharge themselves from ambient light when not actually in use and the output of the screen/panel will further extend the length of time they can operate without recourse to a conventional power source.

Look for most other bits of electronic kit to also boast solar cells -- even if only to eliminate the insidious (but not insignificant) cost of "phantom drain" -- such as that used by TV sets, DVD players and other items when turned off via their remote control units. And of course, those remotes will also never need new batteries - because they'll also be solar powered -- taking advantage of ambient and artificial lighting to keep their batteries or supercaps fully charged.

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