Chipmaker Targets Energy Waste

California-based Marvell Technology Group makes small chips that can trick electronic gadgets into using significantly less energy.

Some 1.6 billion cell phones and mobile devices were sold worldwide in 2010. Each came equipped with a charger that plugs into an electrical outlet.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that no fewer than 10 billion chargers and other so-called AC-DC power supplies are used for computers, phones and other consumer products around the globe. Together, they waste huge amounts of energy—roughly 40 percent of the power they transfer from the outlet to the gadget.
It’s a problem that concerns Weili Dai, co-founder of the California-based Marvell Technology Group. Since starting her semiconductor company in 1995 with her husband, Sehat Sutardja, and his brother, Pantas, Dai has always been proud of Marvell’s record on energy efficiency.
“Not only did we say, ‘We have to be the best’ [maker of semiconductors], but we also always focused on producing low-power technology,” she says.
Marvell is now pushing technology that can dramatically reduce power wastage in all consumer electronics. Known as power factor correction, it’s an electronic chip that “tricks” personal computers, laptops, smartphones, computer tablets, printers and other gadgets into taking better advantage of the electric current.
While Marvell is finding a global market for its power-saving chips, Dai believes that only when all manufacturers are required to pursue smarter power solutions will the true environmental improvement be felt.
“Right now, we’re kind of the cheerleader, and we’re driving it,” she says. “But we’d like to have the entire electronic industry make their products greener. We have a way to solve this problem, but everybody needs to apply it.”
So Dai’s team has been working with the Congressman representing California’s high-tech Silicon Valley on legislation that would standardize “smart” power technology for consumer electronics and provide incentives for manufacturers in the United States to adopt such technology.
Marvell estimates that if power factor correction technology were mandated, it would save the United States nearly $3 billion in annual energy costs and cut the nation’s carbon-dioxide emissions by 24 million tons each year.
It would also boost Marvell’s bottom line. The company is heavily invested in low-power technologies and is betting on a growing market for energy-smart electronics.
Meanwhile, at its Santa Clara, California headquarters, Marvell has embarked on a campaign dubbed “Footprint Zero” to gradually make its company operations carbon-neutral. A new computerized lighting control system, for example, is using 60 percent less electricity than a conventional lighting system would. Energy-efficient fluorescent and LED light bulbs in the company’s offices have also shaved electricity consumption.
The company, which employs 5,700 people worldwide, is taking its Footprint Zero campaign to its campuses on several continents. Changes in technology and infrastructure are needed “to save our country and our world,” Dai says.
Karin Rives is a staff writer for the U.S. Department of State’s International Information Programs.