The Quest for Extreme Low Power

Input Voltage

–Jeff Child, Editor-in-Chief

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Over the next couple years, power will clearly rank as a major design challenge for the myriad of edge devices deployed in Internet of Things (IoT) implementations. Such IoT devices are wireless units that need to be always on and connected. At the same time, they need low power consumption, while still being capable of doing the processing power needed to enable machine intelligence. The need for extreme low power in these devices goes beyond the need for long battery life. Instead the hope is for perpetually powered solutions providing uninterrupted operation—and, if possible, without any need for battery power. For their part, microcontroller vendors have been doing a lot in recent years within their own labs to craft extreme low power versions of their MCUs. But the appetite for low power at the IoT edge is practically endless.

Offering a fresh take on the topic, I recently spoke with Paul Washkewicz, vice president and co-founder of Eta Compute about the startup’s extreme low power technology for microcontrollers. The company claims to offer the lowest power MCU intellectual property (IP) available today, with voltages as low as 0.3 V. Eta Compute has developed and implemented a unique low power design methodology that delivers up to a 10x improvement in power efficiency. Its IP and custom designs operate over severe variations in conditions such as temperature, process, voltage and power supply variation. Eta Compute’s approach is a self-timed technology supporting dynamic voltage scaling (DVS) that is insensitive to process variations, inaccurate device models and path delay variations.

The technology has been implemented in a variety of chip functions. Among these are M0+ and M3 ARM cores scaling 0.3 V to 1.2 V operation with additional low voltage logic support functions such as real-time clocking (RTC), Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) and digital signal processing. The technology has also been implemented in an A-D converter sensor interface that consumes less than 5 µW. The company has also crafted an efficient power management device that supports dynamic voltage scaling down to 0.25 V with greater than 80% efficiency.

According to the company, Eta Compute’s technology can be implemented in any standard foundry process with no modifications to the process. This allows ease of adoption of any IP and is immune to delays and changes in process operations. Manufacturing is straightforward with the company’s IP able to port to technology nodes at any foundry. Last fall at ARM TechCon, David Baker, Ph.D. and Fellow at Eta Compute, did a presentation that included a demonstration of a small wireless sensor board that can operate perpetually on a small 1 square inch solar cell.

Attacking the problem from a different direction, another startup, Nikola Labs, is applying its special expertise in antenna design and advanced circuitry to build power harvesting into products ranging from wearables to sensors to battery-extending phone cases. Wi-Fi routers, mobile phones and other connected devices are continually emitting RF waves for communication. According to the company, radio wave power is strongest near the source—but devices transmit in all directions, saturating the surrounding area with stray waves. Nikola Labs’ high-performance, compact antennae capture this stray RF energy. Efficient electronics are then used to convert it into DC electricity that can be used to charge batteries or energize ultra-low power devices.

Nikola’s technology can derive usable energy from a wide band of frequencies, ranging from LTE (910 MHz) to Wi-Fi (2.4 GHz) and beyond (up to 6 GHz). Microwatts of power can be harvested in an active ambient RF area and this can rise to milliwatts for harvesters placed directly on transmitting sources. Nikola Labs has demonstrated energy harvesting from a common source of RF communication waves: an iPhone. Nikola engineers designed a case for iPhone 6 that captures waste RF transmissions, producing up to 30 mW of power to extend battery life by as much as 16% without impacting the phone’s ability to send and receive data.

Whether you address the challenge of extreme low power from the inside out or the outside in—or by advancing battery capabilities—there’s no doubt that the demand for such technologies will only grow within the coming years. With all that in mind, I look forward to covering developments on this topic in Circuit Cellar throughout 2018.

This appears in the January (330) issue of Circuit Cellar magazine

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