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Small Is Beautiful in Components P1233 July 2018

Author: Martin Schwirn (Send us feedback.)

Small electronic components not only improve existing applications but also enable completely new uses for computing.

Abstracts in this Pattern:

IBM (Armonk, New York) is developing what it calls the "world's smallest computer." Measuring 1 millimeter by 1 millimeter, the computing device is comparable in size to a grain of sand yet still features transistors, memory, a solar cell, a communications module, and power equivalent to that of a chip from 1990. This miniature computing device can integrate into virtually any product for authentication, tracking, and other purposes and may cost as little as 10 cents.

IBM's tiny component is an entire computing platform—albeit a basic one—but other tiny components focus on performing specific tasks. Scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Solid State Physics (Fraunhofer Society for the Advancement of Applied Research; Munich, Germany) and the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research (Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science; Munich, Germany) are working on a quantum sensor that is only a bit larger than a nitrogen atom and could see use to measure the small magnetic fields of next-generation hard drives. Other sensors could find use in the health-care and cosmetics industries. For example, Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois) professor John A. Rogers worked with L'Oréal (Clichy, France) to develop an ultraviolet- (UV-) light sensor that is thin and light enough to fit on a person's thumbnail. The sensor measures the wearer's exposure to the sun's UV light.

A hurdle that many small components for stand-alone use face is the need for power provision. IBM's computing device and L'Oréal's UV sensor can power themselves by taking energy from the sun, but some researchers are looking at power providers as enabling technologies. US research consortium Bridging the Innovation Development Gap (Kissimmee, Florida) is partnering with Face International Corporation (Face Companies; Norfolk, Virginia) to commercialize an energy-harvesting power-cell device for wireless Internet of Things sensors and transmitters. The device uses a thermoelectric material to harvest thermal energy from the environment and convert it into electricity.