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IBM Introduces Technology for Power-Management Chips for Alternative Energy

September 16, 2010 by Jeff Shepard

IBM announced what it says is innovative new chip-making technology for power-management semiconductors – the company’s first foray into a segment seen as critical to the development of alternative energy sources, smart buildings and new consumer devices.

IBM’s process integrates wireless communications into a single power-management chip, a first that can cut production costs (about 20%) to allow chip designers and manufacturers to create a new class of semiconductors – ultra-small and affordable chips that control power usage while they communicate in real-time with systems used to monitor "smart" buildings, energy grids and transportation systems.

The main function of power-management chips is to optimize power usage and serve as bridges so electricity can flow uninterrupted among systems and electronics that require varying levels of current. They are key components used in solar panels, for example, and widely used in all industrial segments – automobiles, consumer electronics (digital televisions) and mobile communications (mobile phones).

By using the same chip-making process employed in computers and smart phones, CMOS-7HV can lower the costs of producing these chips while at the same time allowing for the integration of an unprecedented number of new functions – resulting in one chip where previously three or four were needed. Such advancements are critical to the rollout of smart systems where the ubiquity of cheap, single-chip sensors depends on affordable manufacturing technology.

CMOS-7HV offers PM chip manufacturers the potential to speed the rollout of new classes of products and infrastructure. For example, IBM’s wireless PM technology can be used to create advanced power-optimizing chips located on individual solar panels to optimize electrical output of an entire array – harvesting up to 57% of the power that is typically lost to real-world conditions such as dirty panels.

Furthermore, since buildings worldwide consume more than 40% of all the energy we use – more than any other product or asset – the drive is on to retrofit them with new energy-monitoring technology that makes wide use of PM chips. With IBM technology these PM chips can get smaller and cheaper and can do away with costly and intrusive wiring, making energy-efficient retrofits an easier task for the average building owner, who can see up to a 50% improvement in efficiency. Semiconductor technology such as CMOS-7HV will be key enablers of future "Zero Net" buildings – structures that operate pollution-free.

"This new process can be used to create new types of affordable wireless sensors, the kind needed to monitor and connect the smart systems coming on line in the next few years – from alternative-energy products being developed by industrial firms to consumer companies looking to deliver mobile entertainment," said Michael J. Cadigan, General anager, IBM Microelectronics Division. "Integrating communications and power sensors on one chip cuts costs for the industry and is an example of our ’smart-planet’ technology vision – one that we back up with R&D."

IBM is rolling out the new chip-making process to manufacturers in the consumer electronics, industrial, automotive, digital media and alternative-energy segments. The company’s semiconductor plant in Burlington Vermont, will be the primary manufacturing location for the new technology.