‘It’s time we lower power consumption’

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Tough job Chandrakasan is developing energy-efficient gadgets; an integrated chip
Tough job Chandrakasan is developing energy-efficient gadgets; an integrated chip

WHEN WE appreciate the metamorphosis computers have gone through from early stage dinosaurs to the agility of mobile computing,we have to thank researchers such as Professor Anantha Chandrakasan. At the beginning of the last decade, when regular Joes were familiarising themselves with computers, Chandrakasan focused on reducing their power consumption by making the integrated circuits more energy efficient. His research will help lead to a future where cell phones will run for days, laptops can survive a holiday at your mother-in-law’s house without the power cord and implantable medical devices will run on a lifetime of power drawn from human body elements. If this sounds a little like fiction, there is no doubt that Chandrakasan is working on making it real very soon.

For his continuous, path-breaking, research, Chandrakasan has received numerous awards: the most recent is the University Researcher Award by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA). He is also the Conference Chair of the International Solid-State Circuits Conference, the foremost global forum for presentation of advances in solid-state circuits and Systems-on-a-Chip.

It’s a tradition of recognition that’s continued right from his undergraduate days at the prestigious University of California, Berkeley. Early in his graduate research, in 1992, he published a paper titled ‘Low-power Digital CMOS Design’: it’s the second most cited paper in the IEEE Journal of Solid-State Circuits (the premier journal in integrated chip design). He finished his MS and PhD from the same school before joining faculty across the coast at another premier institution, MIT. He currently serves as professor and director of MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories.

Son of a businessman and a scientist, Chandrakasan was born and raised in Chennai until high school, when his mother’s research work brought him to the US. His inclination towards semiconductors and low power consumption started in high school and took root during his undergrad years, under the tutelage of UC Berkeley professor RW Brodersen, whom Chandrakasan credits for his passion and focus. His groundbreaking work promises to revolutionise the quality of our lives and positively impact the precious resources of our planet. He is an enabler, helping reduce the carbon footprint of the technologydriven global community.

EXCERPTS:

How does your research help in reducing the power consumption of computers without compromising their performance?
We are looking at more energy efficient ways to use electronics. From the advent of integrated chips, scientists have been working on putting more transistors on the chip to enhance performance. Our focus is to make that effort, be it playing a video on your cell phone or using a laptop, more energy efficient. That allows the device to run the applications longer from a finite source of energy such as a battery. We are trying to improve the design on the IC for examples where the power consumed to charge your cell phone is dramatically reduced, without affecting its performance.

So your focus is on the circuits and not on the batteries?
Yes. But we also look at the efficient conversion of energy, for example, finding ways to function from various sources of ambient energy. Can you use vibrations to charge devices? My ultimate goal would be to make electronics so low powered that they could run on ambient energy, like body heat for medical devices, and not need a traditional battery. Some implantable devices need to be surgically removed to change the power source. We would want to see the circuits run on extremely low power or scavenge from other bodily sources of power so that the device lasts a lifetime. And this should be applicable to wearable and disposable devices as well, like a wireless band-aid to monitor electrocardiography at home.

Photo: Reuters

What motivated you to focus on the area of low power consumption for devices?
It evolved during my undergrad years at UC Berkeley and when I moved to graduate school, I wrote a paper in 1992 with my professor. It brought to the fore the possible development of low power systems. In the early 1990s the proliferation of mobile devices like cell phones and laptops was low. They were bulky because the energy required was derived from batteries that had to be of sizable measure and the industries were focused on increasing the battery life. At the end of the day, these sources are finite. I felt we could change that.

In the 1990s when you were at the threshold of the mobile device implosion, why didn’t you pursue the entrepreneurial route?
That idea did flash and I felt more research needed to be done to get it productised. If we had taken that route we probably would have narrowed our research to one particular industry, like computing.

With the advancement of our research, we can now have horizontal impact on a spectrum of applications with low power energy products that benefit lives. It is showing results in computing, wireless and medical devices industries where we have brought down the power consumption by more than 10 times.

How do you see the impact of current economic crisis on research and on the availability of venture funding enabling entrepreneurship?
I feel this is the time to focus on advanced research. Lean economic times are advantageous for research institutions to continually improvise the methodologies until the economy turns around. Venture money will always be there for good research ideas that can be effectively productised.