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Start-up Unveils Energy-Efficient Transistors

A start-up has developed a transistor technology that promises to reduce processors' energy consumption by at least 50 percent while maintaining performance levels.

Reducing power consumption is a major goal of chip makers, particularly for processors used in mobile devices such as laptops and smartphones. The less power the devices' chips use, the longer their batteries last.

SuVolta says its PowerShrink technology could be used in multiple products, including microprocessors, static RAM chips, and SoCs, all of which are important parts of mobile systems.

The company hasn't released many details of its technology. However, it notes that the approach reduces power leakage in transistors and can be built with existing fabrication technology. That is a huge benefit for chipmakers, who don't want to spend large sums of money on new fabrication equipment.

Today's integrated circuits often have millions of transistors, which turn on or off at each transistor's threshold voltage. The threshold voltage can vary greatly across transistors within an IC and among different ICs. This variation reduces performance and increases power consumption because higher voltages must be used to ensure that all transistors are fully on or off.

PowerShrink uses a deeply depleted channel transistor. This DDC approach includes a channel structure that decreases the threshold-voltage variation by 50 percent, compared to conventional transistors, thereby reducing leakage and maintaining performance.

SuVolta says PowerShrink will work with small and large feature sizes.

The company expressed hope that chip makers see PowerShrink as a way to compete with Intel's recently announced Tri-Gate technology. Tri-Gate transistors employ a third gate stacked on top of two vertical gates providing three times the surface area for electrons to travel. Intel says this reduces leakage and consumes less power.

SuVolta plans to license its technology, scheduled to be in production next year, to chip makers and already has a large buyer in Fujitsu Semiconductor. Companies such as ARM, Broadcom, and Cypress Semiconductor have expressed interest in PowerShrink.


Figure    SuVolta's PowerShrink technology promises to save energy by reducing the range of threshold voltages that turn the various transistors on a chip on and off. The wide variance in threshold voltages on traditional chips can reduce performance and increase energy consumption.

McAfee: Massive Cyberattack Targeted US and Others

Security vendor McAfee says it has identified a major multiyear cyberspying campaign against the US and numerous other countries, as well as about 70 corporations and organizations.

The massive cyberespionage effort—which McAfee calls Operation Shady RAT (remote access tool)—has been ongoing for at least five years and appears to be state sponsored. The firm, which Intel recently acquired, found 19 intrusions lasting more than a year and five lasting more than two years.

In a report on the subject, McAfee said that many of the victims don't even know that they've been attacked, even though they might have lost confidential information such as government secrets and intellectual property.

According to the report, the intrusions are much more extensive and dangerous than the recent high-profile attacks by hacker groups such as Anonymous and Lulzsec.

While investigating intrusions at several US defense contractors, McAfee said it discovered the extent of the cyberespionage campaign by accessing one of the hundreds of command-and-control servers the hackers were operating. The company then examined the server's logs, which contained information about the attacks from mid-2006.

McAfee said it had been aware of the server since 2009 but only recently discovered that the attackers had erred by configuring the server to generate logs that identified every IP address they controlled.

The security vendor is working with US government agencies to shut down the server. The firm has also helped several victimized companies investigate the intrusions. However, other organizations have reportedly refused help, denying they had been successfully attacked.

Some security companies downplay the McAfee report's importance, saying such incidents aren't new.

In describing the attacks, the report said, "The compromises themselves were standard procedure for these types of targeted intrusions: A spear-phishing e-mail containing an exploit is sent to an individual with the right level of access at the company; and the exploit, when opened on an unpatched system, will trigger a download of the implant malware."

McAfee didn't go into more detail. However, spear phishing typically uses e-mail to attack a specific organization and access confidential data.

As is the case with general phishing attacks, spear-phishing e-mail appears to come from a trusted source, often someone in a position of authority within the recipient's organization who might request confidential information.

Frequently, the message asks victims to log into a fake but realistic-looking webpage that requests their username and password or that asks them to click on a link that subsequently and surreptitiously downloads malware.

According to the McAfee report, the attacks it discovered have targeted government agencies, the United Nations, nonprofit and other organizations, and companies in the US, South Korea, Taiwan, Canada, Japan, the UK, Switzerland, South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Among those reportedly attacked were the Associated Press, the International Olympic Committee, natural-gas companies, technology firms, and US defense contractors. McAfee didn't name most of the victimized corporations, saying it didn't want to alarm shareholders or customers.

McAfee's analysis indicated a single group of attackers conducted all of the assaults. Because the five-year campaign targeted Taiwan and Olympics-related organizations, the Center for Strategic and International Studies—a US-based public-policy think tank—suggests China is responsible for the intrusions. China, which denies the allegations, hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

First Smart Grid Standards Approved

A group representing companies and government agencies has approved the first six smart-grid-interoperability standards, addressing areas such as device interoperability for easier information exchange and requirements for upgrading smart electric meters.

The Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, which the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) formed in 2009, recently adopted the specifications as part of its Catalog of Standards.

The SGIP is using the work of several standards organizations in developing specifications designed to enable manufacturers and developers to build smart-grid-related systems that work together.

Smart-grid technology promises to use intelligent networking and automation to enable a two-way flow and analysis of information between electricity suppliers and consumers. Suppliers would use the data to efficiently and effectively control the delivery of electricity to consumers.

Last year, NIST released the first version of its Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability Standards, which identified 75 existing specifications. A second version, currently in draft form, names 83 proposed standards that the SGIP is studying.

The SGIP doesn't have regulatory power, but proponents hope the panel's broad public and private membership and the requirement that at least 75 percent of its members approve standards will encourage adoption.

The new standards, approved by more than 90 percent of the members, include:

  • the Internet Protocol Suite for the Smart Grid, which would help devices exchange information;
  • a data model for the online ex-change of information between energy suppliers and customers;
  • standards for electric-vehicle plugs;
  • approaches for communication between plug-in vehicles and the grid;
  • requirements for upgrading household smart meters; and
  • guidelines for assessing standards for wireless smart-grid communications.

New Display Uses 'Natural' Approach to Generate Colors

Qualcomm has designed an energy-efficient display that produces colors with an approach like that used by the wings of some butterflies and birds. This enables the mirasol display to show images that are easy to see even in bright light.

The screen is an example of the increasingly popular biomimetics approach, in which technology uses techniques found in nature to solve problems.

The mirasol display, a microelectromechanical system that utilizes a technique called interferometric modulation technology, consists of two electrically conductive plates. One is a thin-film stack on a glass substrate; the other is a reflective membrane. An air gap separates the plates.

When light hits the display, it reflects off both plates. Depending on the height of the air gap, the light reflecting off one plate will be out of phase with that reflecting off the other. The resulting constructive and destructive interference creates colors.

The interference between the light bouncing off different surfaces produces the iridescent colors seen on birds such as peacocks and on the wings of some butterflies.

The mirasol display controls the color it displays by running electricity through the plates and thereby adjusting the size of the gap between them.

Many displays use a backlight to boost visibility. The mirasol display doesn't need this because it works with reflected light.

By eliminating the backlight, the mirasol display uses less energy than conventional screens. In addition, the screen will hold its image until signaled to change without refreshing. This avoids the need to expend energy refreshing the image constantly, as LCDs must do.

The display's reflected-light images remain bright even in sunlight. The backlight used in many other types of displays, on the other hand, tends to wash out in strong ambient light.

Qualcomm says its technology could be employed in many hardware applications, from mobile phones to flat-panel monitors.

Antennas Use Plasma to Make Wireless Networks Faster

A new type of antenna uses plasma to focus radio waves and enable ultrafast wireless networks.

UK-based Plasma Antennas has designed a plasma silicon antenna (PSiAN), which can be built with the same well-established, cost-efficient techniques used to make silicon chips.

Traditional directional antennas that transmit high-frequency radio waves require expensive materials or precise manufacturing techniques.

A PSiAN consists of thousands of diodes on a silicon chip. Each activated diode generates a cloud of electrons, also known as plasma. If the cloud is dense enough, it reflects high-frequency radio waves.

Users could turn on select diodes to change the reflecting area's shape, which could then focus the waves in one direction and steer them as desired, thereby speeding up transmissions. Typical antennas send signals in all directions, causing dispersion that reduces performance.

PSiAN is a solid-state antenna small enough to fit within a mobile phone. Some potential users may tend to favor this type of antenna over gas plasma antennas, which are larger and have moving parts.

Proponents say PSiAN's ability to focus radio waves would be ideal for use with Wireless Gigabit technology, which provides data rates up to 7 Gbits per second—fast enough to quickly download video—at a range of 10 meters.

WiGig operates in the unlicensed 60-GHz frequency band. Signals in this range disperse quickly unless they are focused.

Using PSiAN with technologies such as WiGig could make it easier for users to download video and other data-intensive content to their smartphones.

PSiAN could also be used in small radar systems for cars, which could improve driving in low visibility.

Some experts note that plasma antennas like PSiAN might not be useful for some purposes because they operate at high frequencies. The signals couldn't penetrate walls and thus aren't ideal for some indoor uses, they explain.

Plasma Antennas says its product could be ready for commercial use within two years.

IBM Develops Search Engine for People Who can't Read

Many people, particularly in the developing world, can't read. This makes it impossible for them to use many Internet technologies that could benefit them.

With this in mind, IBM has developed a speech-based search engine that the illiterate can work with.

Scientists at IBM Research-India have created the Spoken Web system, which utilizes telephone numbers in place of URLs. Users can input the numbers into their phones to listen to spoken Web-based information or share information such as crop prices.

The researchers recently developed a search engine that employs speech recognition to determine what a user is looking for and to find its location on the Spoken Web.

The system can generate many results. However, users can't scan the results to choose the ones they like, as they can with a traditional search engine. Instead, the IBM engine announces how many results were found and recommends ways to filter the list. This process continues until there are no more than five results, which the system then reads to the user.

IBM said it tested the technology with 40 farmers in India, who found it easy to use.

The researchers are continuing to work on their speech-recognition software.

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