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Putting Energy In Perspective

It’s not just the semiconductor industry that’s focused on saving power anymore. It’s now a global target. But even that isn’t enough.

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The resurgent interest in 2.5D stacked die, the introduction of ultra-low-power memory and the relentless focus on low power for the Internet of Things are rather predictable progressions to engineers working in the semiconductor industry. What’s less obvious is how these changes are filtering out into the rest of the market and where it needs to go next.

While many people have been talking about saving energy and reducing power, that effort is bearing fruit in ways that are much more obvious to many more people.

In automobiles, for example, most people are familiar with the Tesla, the Nissan Leaf and various other electric and mostly electric models such as the Volt. But behind the scenes, just as in the semiconductor world, there has been the same kind of debate and testing of power-train designs for improving energy efficiency as in the chip world. In the case of plug-in hybrids and turbo-diesels, the mileage numbers have been steadily rising. But just as with stacked die, new engine power train architectures have been under development for years. The announcement by Toyota that it has developed a car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell is the latest example of that, and Hyundai is poised to introduce one next year.

In the LED world, the price of energy-saving bulbs continues to drop to the point where entire displays have begun cropping up in places such as Home Depot and even neighborhood hardware stores. Two years ago, the price of an LED bulb made most people break out a calculator to figure out how long it would take for a payback. Now they’re flying off the shelves, with more big companies now jumping in alongside players such as Cree.

Even in home and portable electronics, there has been a focus on deep sleep cycles and rapid wake-up rather than light sleep, which is what got the set-top box industry in trouble with the National Resources Defense Council back in 2011. The majority of new cable boxes and TVs really really do go to sleep when they’re supposed to (which may be more than can be said for most people who work in the semiconductor industry).

Still, the big challenge going forward will be more than just powering down individual pieces. It’s great to see the focus on energy efficiency cropping up everywhere. But there also are more devices everywhere, and the real advantage of everything being connected is being able to power down many more pieces of the personal, business or even larger grids for longer periods of time. This is a massive challenge, and one that people are only starting to consider. But in energy, this isn’t just the next big thing. It’s the thing, and it needs to be recognized by all of the various pieces that feed into it.