I.B.M. ResearchHeike Riel of I.B.M. Research in Zurich, part of a team addressing the runaway growth of energy consumption by electronic devices.
Vampire power, the electricity consumed by devices that are plugged in but not in use, costs American homeowners some $4 billion every year and accounts for 5 to 10 percent of all residential energy use, according to estimates from the Department of Energy. Studies in Europe have found similar amounts of energy waste in residences and businesses.
There are a variety of ways to cut down on this type of power waste, like manually unplugging appliances from the wall or using a power strip that can cut the supply of power to devices when they are not in use.
Regulation is also playing a role, with some states instituting rules for electronics manufacturers that limit the amount of power consumed by televisions and other devices when in standby mode.
Yet far more substantial energy savings may be found in a fundamental redesign of the transistor, the basic building block of modern electronics, some scientists suggest. One major research initiative involving scientists from I.B.M. and several European universities is pursuing just that goal, with the help of more than $5 million in funding from the European Union.
Like a leaky faucet, today’s transistors may be in the “off” position but are never fully closed, allowing small amounts of energy to steadily escape. But with nanotechnology, a far tighter “seal” may be achieved, greatly increasing efficiency, said the project’s coordinator, Adrian Ionescu of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.
“It’s old technology,” Mr. Ionescu said of the current transistors, which are based on designs that date back decades. “What we want to use is nanoscience and nanowires, so when you want to close it, you do close it.”
For consumer devices, success could mean cellphone batteries that last 10 times longer than today’s models, and computers and other devices that use virtually no power when in stand-by mode.
“Our vision is to share this research to enable manufacturers to build the holy grail in electronics, a computer that utilizes negligible energy when it’s in sleep mode, which we call the zero-watt PC,” Mr. Ionescu said.
More efficient transistors could significantly reduce the power used not only by consumer electronics but also the energy-guzzling supercomputers that run the world’s computer networks and data centers.
Fundamental research on the new transistors is still under way, with a prototype expected to be ready no sooner than 2015.