Thermo Limits


A radical reimagining of information processing could greatly reduce the energy use—as well as greenhouse gas emissions and waste heat—from computers. Credit: vchal/Getty Images

Topics: Climate Change, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Global Warming, Semiconductor Technology, Thermodynamics

In case you had not noticed, computers are hot—literally. A laptop can pump out thigh-baking heat, while data centers consume an estimated 200 terawatt-hours each year—comparable to the energy consumption of some medium-sized countries. The carbon footprint of information and communication technologies as a whole is close to that of fuel used in the aviation industry. And as computer circuitry gets ever smaller and more densely packed, it becomes more prone to melting from the energy it dissipates as heat.

Now physicist James Crutchfield of the University of California, Davis, and his graduate student Kyle Ray have proposed a new way to carry out computation that would dissipate only a small fraction of the heat produced by conventional circuits. In fact, their approach, described in a recent preprint paper, could bring heat dissipation below even the theoretical minimum that the laws of physics impose on today’s computers. That could greatly reduce the energy needed to both perform computations and keep circuitry cool. And it could all be done, the researchers say, using microelectronic devices that already exist.

In 1961 physicist Rolf Landauer of IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., showed that conventional computing incurs an unavoidable cost in energy dissipation—basically, in the generation of heat and entropy. That is because a conventional computer has to sometimes erase bits of information in its memory circuits in order to make space for more. Each time a single bit (with the value 1 or 0) is reset, a certain minimum amount of energy is dissipated—which Ray and Crutchfield have christened “the Landauer.” Its value depends on ambient temperature: in your living room, one Landauer would be around 10–21 joule. (For comparison, a lit candle emits on the order of 10 joules of energy per second.)

‘Momentum Computing’ Pushes Technology’s Thermodynamic Limits, Phillip Ball, Scientific American

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