Imagine a day when cell phones or other mobile devices can charge themselves with free energy converted from radio waves that are abundant wherever there are cell phone and radio towers.

That's one of the futuristic scenarios Intel's researchers are aiming for as the company develop sensors or other technologies that can grab all kinds of free energy sources from around us, such as radio waves (a type of electromagnetic energy) and the sun.

"Wouldn't it be nice if you can go indefinitely without charging the battery if you can scavenge free energy from the environment," said Justin Rattner, Intel's chief technology officer Friday.

Intel, based in Santa Clara, Calif., makes most of the microprocessors and WiFi chips used by personal computers in the world today. Rattner, who is based at Intel's Oregon's campus, stopped by San Francisco to give a talk about the chip giant's eco-friendly research efforts (see his presentation).

So is the company getting into the sensor business? Not any time soon. Intel has a formidable research arm that investigates a slew of subjects, from designing chips with novel materials to ethnographic studies. The company employs anthropologists to look at how consumers behave and interact with technology.

Even if the research isn't directly related to engineering better chips, it does aim at promoting computer use. And not just personal computers or servers, but all electronic devices that rely on processors to work. By doing so, Intel hopes to sell more chips to many of these devices.

Energy efficiency has been weighing heavily on Intel's mind ever since it realized, earlier this deca de, that it needed to radically change how it designs chips to make them do more with less energy. Otherwise, those chips would end up sucking up lots of power and risk overheating.

To help put its energy-efficiency research into a marketable slogan, Intel has come up with "hybrid power architecture." The research, then, looks at a combined use of alternative energy sources and efficiency power delivery and management technologies to cut reduce electricity use in our increasingly digitized world.

Here is Rattner's outline of the eco-friendly research:

  • Self-charging sensors for energy and environmental monitoring: researchers are working on what Intel calls a "wireless identification and sensing platform," or WISP, which refers to a tiny sensor with an antenna that can draw radio waves to charge a small, high-density capacitor. Once charged, the sensor can gather data on air quality or building vibrations and send the information wirelessly. Deploying a network of these sensors in data centers, and you can monitor energy use and use it to create computer models to predict energy needs and identify waste, Rattner said. Challenge: Figuring out ways to harvest more energy efficiently. Otherwise, there wouldn't be enough electricity to keep the sensors working for long and transmitting lots of data during each charge.
  • Voltage conversion: Electrical power goes through a series of conversions when it travels from the source to the destinations, whether it's to light up a building or run a server. The back-and-forth conversion of direct current to alternating current leads to energy losses along the way. A server, for example, uses AC. But a laptop uses DC, hence the heavy adapter we all have to lug around. Intel is working on making the conversion process more efficient, and it's working with the power equipment industry to create technical standards for high-voltage DC power distribution to cut down on losses.
  • Use hardware instead of software to manage power use: A growing number of companies are developing power-management software that can monitor use and even shut down servers that are not in use to save energy (see Keeping Facebook from Frying). But it takes time for the software to shut down or adjust power use ("Our power supply can't throttle up or down and respond in microsecond," Rattner said.). Intel is developing a way for the processor to take on power management tasks that are currently being done by other components on the mother board. Researchers already have demonstrated this single-rail power delivery technology (see diagram below). The technology is three to four years from showing up in Intel's commercial products.
  • Intel digs solar: The researchers are working on building solar cells into a cell phone's touch screen. To cut down on the need to plug mobile devices into an outlet on the wall, the chip company is looking for alternative energy sources. One day, your cell phone could be charged with those energy-producing sensors and solar power.