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Published on February 3rd, 2010 | by Tina Casey


Columbia University Looks to Nanomagnetic Materials for Energy Efficient Computer Chips

February 3rd, 2010 by  

The Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has received a federal grant to develop high-efficiency computer chips.Magnetic materials are set to play a big role in a more energy efficient future for the information technology sector.  Last month the U.S. Department of Energy announced $47 million in grants for new IT energy efficiency projects, and a big chunk of that – $2.8 million – will go to the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University (SEAS) to develop new computer chips using nano-scaled magnetic materials.


Columbia will be working with partners IBM and Cornell University on the project, which is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). It’s a compelling example of the ripple effect that government investment in research can have, as the increased efficiencies are expected to yield significant bottom line savings for established IT players and startups alike.  Private industry is chipping in a cool $70 million in matching funds for the overall DOE program.

IT and Energy Consumption

According to DOE, computer servers in the U.S. account for more than 50 billion kilowatt hours of electricity every year.  That’s three percent of total U.S. consumption.  With a scale like that, even a single-digit increase in energy efficiency would be significant.  A ten percent savings in processors could result in a savings of 1.9 billion kWh in large servers alone.  Along with Columbia University the other DOE grant recipients will be developing more energy efficient designs for IT equipment and software, power supply, and cooling.

Columbia SEAS and Energy Efficient Computer Chips

The SEAS project involves building a power converter that can fit on a silicon chip, instead of being positioned on the main circuit board (converters adjust the voltage to the low level required by silicon chips).  Energy is lost when electricity travels from the converter to the chip, so locating the two in close quarters is more efficient.  The focus will be on magnetic materials because they enable high density, high efficiency energy storage on a nanoscale.

Energy Efficient Computer Chips and Magnetic Materials

Cornell will supply the know-how for the materials aspect of the design.  The University’s School of Applied and Engineering Physics specializes in nanomagnetics, and researchers there are exploring the manipulation of “electron spin” from one nanomagnet to another.  Cornell’s Center for Materials Research has developed a thin film “superparamagnetic” material based on microscopic particles of ion oxide, which could also have application in medical diagnosis.  The researchers have developed devices in which the alignment of two magnetic layers can be switched from one configuration to another.  In effect, it’s a highly efficient, high density binary operation that serves as a memory device.

Magnets on the March

Aside from their use in boosting IT efficiency, magnets are coming into play in various aspects of sustainable energy.  Magnet research got a big boost this year when Florida State University announced funding for the National Magnetic Field Laboratory, which will house a high efficiency superconducting magnet that could help lower the cost of basic research.  The advent of flywheel-based energy storage systems also means a growing role for magnets in wheel bearings.  On the individual end of the scale, at least one company has developed a battery that is based on a spring-loaded coil-magnet, which a person can recharge by shaking vigorously.

Image: Magnets by somegeekintn on flickr.com. 
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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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