Richmond, Va.
Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014

VCU Receives Grants to Advance Digital Computing

Researchers work toward creating processors that run without a battery

Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011

Virginia Commonwealth University has received two grants totaling $1.75 million from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative of the Semiconductor Research Corporation to create energy-efficient computing devices with even more processing power packed in a chip – potentially cutting out the need for battery-run computer circuits in the future.

The team, led by researchers at the VCU School of Engineering, is working with colleagues from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of California at Riverside to translate its theoretical work into a computing device that could one day be used by millions.

Today’s computers are built from ultrafast, ultra-small silicon transistors that are estimated to be one-thousandth the size of the width of a human hair. Through the years, to increase computational power, engineers have shrunk the size of transistors allowing more and more of them to be packed on a chip. However, packing so many transistors on a chip produces a lot of heat which must be removed efficiently in order for the chip to survive. Heat removal is not an easy task, and experts have learned that reducing the amount of heat dissipated when the transistor switches is the better approach to safeguard the chip. If that cannot be done, the trend of packing more and more transistors in a given area of the chip will likely come to an end.

“The purpose of this work is to establish a new paradigm for digital computing which will be extremely energy-efficient and hopefully allow us to pack more and more computing devices on a chip without having to worry about excessive heat generation. This will allow us to
increase the computational prowess of computers beyond what is available today,” said Supriyo Bandyopadhyay, Ph.D., co-principal investigator for the study at VCU, and professor of electrical and computer engineering in the VCU School of Engineering.

“We are also fascinated by the prospect of building processors that can run without a battery because they can harvest all the energy they need from the ambient environment,” said Jayasimha Atulasimha, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering in the VCU School of Engineering, who serves as co-principal investigator on this research.

The research project will build on the VCU team’s theoretical work published in the August 2011 issue of the journal Applied Physics Letters. The paper reported that if transistors that are currently used in electronic chips are replaced by special tiny nanomagnets that can also process digital information, then the heat dissipation can be reduced by one thousand to ten thousand times. This allows packing more devices in a chip and increasing the computational power of the chip several times. Related work by Bandyopadhyay and Atulasimha has also been published in the journals Physical Review and Nanotechnology.

According to Bandyopadhyay and Atulasimha, this type of digital computing system could be ideal for medical devices such as processors implanted in an epileptic patient’s brain that monitor brain signals to warn of impending seizures. This processor would run by harvesting energy only from the patient’s head movements, without requiring a battery.

The Semiconductor Research Corporation is a technology research consortium with member companies and university research programs spanning the globe.

Scanning electron microscope image of tiny magnets with a diameter of ~100nm – which is approximately one-thousand times smaller than the diameter of a strand of human hair. The magnets were fabricated in the Nanomaterials Characterization Center of VCU by graduate students working on this project. In the future, magnets such as this could form the heart of energy-efficient computing systems. Image courtesy of Supriyo Bandyopadhyay, Ph.D./VCU.