Power is usually the holy grail of mobile communications and mobile computing. No matter how powerful your phone’s processor is, how big the screen, or how fluid the user interface, it will not amount to anything if the power supply is limited. This is why manufacturers and technologists have been trying to find ways to reduce power consumption, or at least find ways to improve efficiency in charging and power use.

A startup based in Massachusetts may have the answer, and it tries to improve power management by addressing the problem at its core: power amplifiers.

A few takeaways from this article:

  • Base stations waste 65% of energy on inefficient power amplifiers.
  • This costs $23.4 billion in wasted electricity per year.
  • A startup is redesigning the power amplifiers used in base stations and mobile devices to reduce power use.
  • The “asymmetric multilevel outphasing” technology will be formally launched at MWC 2013.

Case in point: cell sites around the world will cost about $36 billion to power up this 2012, which amounts to 1% of the world’s energy production. 65% of this is wasted on inefficiencies brought about by a single piece of hardware: the power amplifier. In essence, a cellular tower’s power amplifier should be using significantly less power during standby than when transmitting data. But due to the electrical interference caused by rapid switching between low- and high-power states, power amplifiers are often using higher amounts of power than necessary.

On smartphones, processor chips typically use higher levels of power than standby even when just receiving data. This is because the phone has to transmit a signal back to the base station that confirms receipt of packets.

Eta Devices, a startup co-founded by two MIT professors, plans to address this deficiency by redesigning the power amplifier itself. The new technology is called asymmetric multilevel outphasing, and will dynamically switch across different voltages, choosing the one that minimizes power consumption. This can be done as many as 20 million times per seconds.

The technology is still being tested in the company’s labs. But they are planning to deploy by 2013, first targeting LTE base stations. The team will formally launch its technology at the 2013 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which is among the biggest trade shows in mobile tech. But apart from telcos and base stations, the firm envisions a redesign for mobile phone chips themselves.

The plan is to produce a single smartphone chip that can handle the different cellular technologies and frequencies used by different standards around the world. To illustrate, the current iPhone has five such chips. Phones can realize significant power savings with a reduction of “transistors” in its chips and the number of signal processing chips themselves.

By then, we can probably expect to get double the battery life from our devices. That’s unless we increasingly move toward bigger screens and blazingly fast processors.

Is anyone optimistic about this new power amplifier design? If we’re hoping for faster and faster processor cores  and GPUs without bulky battery packs, then we will definitely need this new tech.

Read comments