Bye-Bye Batteries? TI Says New Wolverine Chip Can Cut Power Needs

Photograph: James Fisher/20th Century Fox Studios

Wolverine doesn't need batteries.

Texas Instruments is letting loose a wolverine it says will change the way home electronics get power.

Named after the fierce, carnivorous inhabitants of northern forests,  the new line of microcontrollers can rummage around their surroundings for sources of energy. Some devices that use the microcontrollers won’t need a separate power source at all, said Brian Crutcher, a senior vice president at Texas Instruments.

“We’re basically cutting the power of any microcontroller in the industry in half,” Crutcher said. “That’s a big claim, but it’s true. We’re really striving to have a battery-free world. No one likes them and we’d like to get rid of them.”

While the chip is a step forward, there’s still plenty of work to be done on making chips suck less power, Crutcher admits. And with even basic household items such as fridges and gas meters being increasingly connected to the Internet, many of the Wolverine chips will find themselves adding functions to existing products rather than allowing them to do away with their power cells completely.

Here’s how the microcontrollers, due for commercial use next year, might work. A TI chip embedded in a pair of running shoes, for instance, would monitor distance traveled and relay the information to a smartphone — gleaning all the energy it needs from the moving shoe. These chips can also be powered by tiny solar panels and vibration.

TI’s chips are more power efficient because their basic components, transistors, are designed to leak less. They are also engineered to wake up, perform their function and go back to sleep more quickly.

With 12 percent share, Texas Instruments is the No. 2 producer of microcontrollers after Japan’s Renesas Electronics. If Wolverine works as predicted, TI may find itself cleaving out a bigger slice of a market Crutcher said generates $18 billion to $20 billion a year.

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