Tag Archives: nanotechnology

Researchers devise efficient power converter for internet of things

Researchers devise efficient power converter for internet of things

By Larry Hardesty


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The “internet of things” is the idea that vehicles, appliances, civil structures, manufacturing equipment, and even livestock will soon have sensors that report information directly to networked servers, aiding with maintenance and the coordination of tasks.

Those sensors will have to operate at very low powers, in order to extend battery life for months or make do with energy harvested from the environment. But that means that they’ll need to draw a wide range of electrical currents. A sensor might, for instance, wake up every so often, take a measurement, and perform a small calculation to see whether that measurement crosses some threshold. Those operations require relatively little current, but occasionally, the sensor might need to transmit an alert to a distant radio receiver. That requires much larger currents.

Generally, power converters, which take an input voltage and convert it to a steady output voltage, are efficient only within a narrow range of currents. But at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference last week, researchers from MIT’s Microsystems Technologies Laboratories (MTL) presented a new power converter that maintains its efficiency at currents ranging from 500 picoamps to 1 milliamp, a span that encompasses a 200,000-fold increase in current levels.

“Typically, converters have a quiescent power, which is the power that they consume even when they’re not providing any current to the load,” says Arun Paidimarri, who was a postdoc at MTL when the work was done and is now at IBM Research. “So, for example, if the quiescent power is a microamp, then even if the load pulls only a nanoamp, it’s still going to consume a microamp of current. My converter is something that can maintain efficiency over a wide range of currents.”

Paidimarri, who also earned doctoral and master’s degrees from MIT, is first author on the conference paper. He’s joined by his thesis advisor, Anantha Chandrakasan, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

Packet perspective

The researchers’ converter is a step-down converter, meaning that its output voltage is lower than its input voltage. In particular, it takes input voltages ranging from 1.2 to 3.3 volts and reduces them to between 0.7 and 0.9 volts.

“In the low-power regime, the way these power converters work, it’s not based on a continuous flow of energy,” Paidimarri says. “It’s based on these packets of energy. You have these switches, and an inductor, and a capacitor in the power converter, and you basically turn on and off these switches.”

The control circuitry for the switches includes a circuit that measures the output voltage of the converter. If the output voltage is below some threshold — in this case, 0.9 volts — the controllers throw a switch and release a packet of energy. Then they perform another measurement and, if necessary, release another packet.

If no device is drawing current from the converter, or if the current is going only to a simple, local circuit, the controllers might release between 1 and a couple hundred packets per second. But if the converter is feeding power to a radio, it might need to release a million packets a second.

To accommodate that range of outputs, a typical converter — even a low-power one — will simply perform 1 million voltage measurements a second; on that basis, it will release anywhere from 1 to 1 million packets. Each measurement consumes energy, but for most existing applications, the power drain is negligible. For the internet of things, however, it’s intolerable.

Clocking down

Paidimarri and Chandrakasan’s converter thus features a variable clock, which can run the switch controllers at a wide range of rates. That, however, requires more complex control circuits. The circuit that monitors the converter’s output voltage, for instance, contains an element called a voltage divider, which siphons off a little current from the output for measurement. In a typical converter, the voltage divider is just another element in the circuit path; it is, in effect, always on.

But siphoning current lowers the converter’s efficiency, so in the MIT researchers’ chip, the divider is surrounded by a block of additional circuit elements, which grant access to the divider only for the fraction of a second that a measurement requires. The result is a 50 percent reduction in quiescent power over even the best previously reported experimental low-power, step-down converter and a tenfold expansion of the current-handling range.

“This opens up exciting new opportunities to operate these circuits from new types of energy-harvesting sources, such as body-powered electronics,” Chandrakasan says.

The work was funded by Shell and Texas Instruments, and the prototype chips were built by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, through its University Shuttle Program.

Source: MIT News Office

Click on the image to know more about Prime Embedded Solutions

Solid nanoparticles can deform like a liquid|Unexpected finding shows tiny particles keep their internal crystal structure while flexing like droplets.

By David Chandler

CAMBRIDGE, Mass–A surprising phenomenon has been found in metal nanoparticles: They appear, from the outside, to be liquid droplets, wobbling and readily changing shape, while their interiors retain a perfectly stable crystal configuration.

The research team behind the finding, led by MIT professor Ju Li, says the work could have important implications for the design of components in nanotechnology, such as metal contacts for molecular electronic circuits.

The results, published in the journal Nature Materials, come from a combination of laboratory analysis and computer modeling, by an international team that included researchers in China, Japan, and Pittsburgh, as well as at MIT.

The experiments were conducted at room temperature, with particles of pure silver less than 10 nanometers across — less than one-thousandth of the width of a human hair. But the results should apply to many different metals, says Li, senior author of the paper and the BEA Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

Silver has a relatively high melting point — 962 degrees Celsius, or 1763 degrees Fahrenheit — so observation of any liquidlike behavior in its nanoparticles was “quite unexpected,” Li says. Hints of the new phenomenon had been seen in earlier work with tin, which has a much lower melting point, he says.

The use of nanoparticles in applications ranging from electronics to pharmaceuticals is a lively area of research; generally, Li says, these researchers “want to form shapes, and they want these shapes to be stable, in many cases over a period of years.” So the discovery of these deformations reveals a potentially serious barrier to many such applications: For example, if gold or silver nanoligaments are used in electronic circuits, these deformations could quickly cause electrical connections to fail.

Only skin deep

The researchers’ detailed imaging with a transmission electron microscope and atomistic modeling revealed that while the exterior of the metal nanoparticles appears to move like a liquid, only the outermost layers — one or two atoms thick — actually move at any given time. As these outer layers of atoms move across the surface and redeposit elsewhere, they give the impression of much greater movement — but inside each particle, the atoms stay perfectly lined up, like bricks in a wall.

“The interior is crystalline, so the only mobile atoms are the first one or two monolayers,” Li says. “Everywhere except the first two layers is crystalline.”

By contrast, if the droplets were to melt to a liquid state, the orderliness of the crystal structure would be eliminated entirely — like a wall tumbling into a heap of bricks.

Technically, the particles’ deformation is pseudoelastic, meaning that the material returns to its original shape after the stresses are removed — like a squeezed rubber ball — as opposed to plasticity, as in a deformable lump of clay that retains a new shape.

The phenomenon of plasticity by interfacial diffusion was first proposed by Robert L. Coble, a professor of ceramic engineering at MIT, and is known as “Coble creep.”  “What we saw is aptly called Coble pseudoelasticity,” Li says.

Now that the phenomenon has been understood, researchers working on nanocircuits or other nanodevices can quite easily compensate for it, Li says. If the nanoparticles are protected by even a vanishingly thin layer of oxide, the liquidlike behavior is almost completely eliminated, making stable circuits possible.

Possible benefits

On the other hand, for some applications this phenomenon might be useful: For example, in circuits where electrical contacts need to withstand rotational reconfiguration, particles designed to maximize this effect might prove useful, using noble metals or a reducing atmosphere, where the formation of an oxide layer is destabilized, Li says.

The new finding flies in the face of expectations — in part, because of a well-understood relationship, in most materials, in which mechanical strength increases as size is reduced.

“In general, the smaller the size, the higher the strength,” Li says, but “at very small sizes, a material component can get very much weaker. The transition from ‘smaller is stronger’ to ‘smaller is much weaker’ can be very sharp.”

That crossover, he says, takes place at about 10 nanometers at room temperature — a size that microchip manufacturers are approaching as circuits shrink. When this threshold is reached, Li says, it causes “a very precipitous drop” in a nanocomponent’s strength.

The findings could also help explain a number of anomalous results seen in other research on small particles, Li says.

The research team included Jun Sun, Longbing He, Tao Xu, Hengchang Bi, and Litao Sun, all of Southeast University in Nanjing, China; Yu-Chieh Lo of MIT and Kyoto University; Ze Zhang of Zhejiang University; and Scott Mao of the University of Pittsburgh. It was supported by the National Basic Research Program of China; the National Natural Science Foundation of China; the Chinese Ministry of Education; the National Science Foundation of Jiangsu Province, China; and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Source: MIT News Office