Technology has certainly made our phones, homes, and lives smarter, but at the cost of consuming enormous amounts of energy. As we head into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we have an immediate need for more efficient means to power our digital economy while reducing our carbon footprint.
Researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a new material with the potential to boost computing power while reducing energy consumption.
In 2013, Mark Mills, CEO of investment and advisory firm the Digital Power Group, calculated that the then iPhone used more electricity a year than a medium-sized (and EPA’s Energy Star rating) refrigerator.
In his report entitled The Cloud Begins with Coal, Mills notes that global Information Communications Technologies, or “ICT“, are essentially the electronics ecosystem that comprises our digital economy.
Back in 2013, global ICT required an estimated 1,500 terawatt-hours of electricity per year. Time Magazine’s Bryan Walsh puts these figures in perspective by noting that 1,500 terawatt-hours of electricity lit the entire planet in 1985.
Feeding Digital Economies
As computing moves to the cloud, vast “server farms” that power cloud computing consume massive amounts of power to move bytes across the world.
Emerging economies are set to embrace digital economies on par with more developed countries, and as more and more come online in countries like India and China, power usage in relation to electronics will increase in tandem.
To solve the problem of excessive power use by the digital economy, researchers from the University of Michigan in collaboration with Cornell University have developed a new material that could increase computing power while reducing energy consumption.
…with Atomic Sandwiches
The new material, called magnetoelectric multiferroic, has enormous promise because it is a multiferroic that operates at room temperature- a property that requires less power to read and write data that current semiconductor-based computer technology allows, and retains data even when the power is off .
Researchers essentially spray painted individual iron, lutetium, and oxygen atoms and then layered them to make a thin film. The resulting atomic structure made out of hexagonal lutetium iron oxide (LuFeO3) is highly ferroelectric, but not strongly magnetic.
To strengthen molecular polarity, researchers found that inserting just one layer of iron oxide lettuce for every 10 layers of LuFeO3 baloney made just the right amount of difference. The resulting material responds to small electric pulses can flip the molecular polarity from positive to negative and vice versa.
Since electronics made with the new multiferroic will have the ability to hold polarized states with just brief pulses of power instead of a constant stream, technology built around this pulse principle could potentially change modern power grids from systems that distribute and transmit electricity continuously to more efficient techniques that reduce energy losses and congestion.