Power To The People (Right On…)

The growing interest in moving away from batteries.


If you’re the right age (or older), you will immediately think of John Lennon when you read the title of this piece.  The song was released in 1971, so I will cut many of you some slack on that. The title was inspired by several pieces of research that I was fortunate enough to be exposed to this past week.

Figure 1

I am currently in Vancouver, British Columbia at the NEWCAS conference. NEWCAS stands for New Circuits and Systems, so you can think of this conference as a place where cutting edge everything is discussed. Vancouver has been quite an experience as well. I’m not sure how you can fly due north for two hours from San Francisco and find a place with 70 degree and incredibly long days (the sun sets here around 10PM). But that’s what I found. There is even great wine produced here. I highly recommend a trip to Vancouver, it’s close, physically stunning, the people are incredibly friendly and the climate is, well, perfect. But I digress.

Back to NEWCAS. I’m here meeting professors that are doing semiconductor research. eSilicon’s new eMUSE program for multi-project wafers is designed to help folks like this realize the Next Big Thing. As I sat through some of the presentations and attended the poster sessions, it occurred to me how incredibly important power management is. If we are to continue to change the world with semiconductor devices (e.g., the connected world promised by IoT), there are fundamental roadblocks to be removed.

One presentation really drove the point home.  We’ve all heard of the billions of interconnected devices promised by the IoT world of tomorrow.  Do you know there’s not enough lithium on the planet to make batteries for all these gadgets? Time for Plan B. As you might expect, energy harvesting was a big topic at this conference. Walking around the poster sessions, I spotted titles like “Loss Analysis of Flyback for Sub-mW Harvesting Systems,” or “A Battery-Less, Self-Sustaining RF Energy Harvesting Circuit with TFETs for uW Power Applications.” I think you get the idea.

Figure 2

Batteries are so last week. Another presentation began with a photo of one of the first LED watches from 1975 (the one you had to push a button to see the time) alongside an Apple Watch from 2016. The battery in the 1975 watch lasted a year. The one in the 2016 watch lasts a day.  We are in need of a different approach it would seem.

I also met some very interesting folks that talked about a nano Cloud Processor (nCP). A device the size of a speck of dust that is able to power itself and sense and communicate with the internet. The possibilities for something like this are truly remarkable.

The takeaway from NEWCAS for me is that power is actually a very different problem than we’ve been talking about.  Sure, power reduction is important for all the reasons we know – battery life, carbon footprint, mother-nature limitations for cooling, etc. But the real frontier exists beyond this. How do we eliminate the need for external power and make things self-powered? Watch this space – there are some significant innovations to be made.