For energy efficient homes, computers are a necessary evil. Desktops use up a lot of electricity when active, not to mention when the ambient power they drain from simply being plugged in. Laptops consume less, but many owners leave them plugged into outlets for long stretches of time, thus defeating the purpose of a low-energy alternative.

But the digital age practically requires computers for every home, as a tool for school-age children, as a communication device accessing to the Internet, as a platform for running an endless list of software and applications capable of performing nearly any task. Computers aren’t going anywhere, so engineers are hard at work uncovering new methods of building and customizing computers to make them more energy-efficient for the average individual. Let’s look at a couple recent breakthroughs that have the potential to alter the course of computer history and save millions of people power.

Efficiency is just a few keystrokes away.

Efficiency is just a few keystrokes away.

Gamers lead scientists to efficiency potential

Fending off alien invaders or tending a virtual farm may not seem all that important to cynics in the real world, but the gaming community has inadvertently led to a valuable discovery that may give engineers insight into how computers can consume less power while still delivering cutting-edge performance.

According to a study conducted by the Berkeley Lab, even though computers built specifically for gaming only represent 2.5 percent of the market, they consume one-fifth of the total market’s overall energy. Some consoles can use as much energy as three refrigerators. This led Berkeley scientists to experiment with ways these devices could be curtailed without sacrificing processing speeds.

By making minor setting adjustments and switching out power-hungry components at the factory level, report authors Nathaniel and Evan Mills believe users can achieve a more than 75 percent reduction in energy consumption, saving owners around $18 billion per year. With help from the Berkeley Lab, gamers around the globe can now hunt zombies, erect empires and infiltrate enemy compounds, all while conserving energy and reducing monthly energy costs.

“Pretty soon, every household object will have a computer planted beneath its surface.”

Digital age efficiency runs on power converters

Thanks to the Internet of Things, pretty soon every household object will have a computer planted beneath its surface. Glassware will be able to upload information to a smartphone regarding how many cups of water their owner drank. Couches will chirp and vibrate if the total change under their cushions exceeds a dollar. Bookshelves will warn homeowners if they’ve exceeded their holding capacity. Some microcomputers, like the ones in new cars and smart thermostats, have already arrived on the market.

For every one of those devices, real or imagined, an embedded system is needed, and in turn, a source of power. Research from North Carolina State University suggests maximizing voltage within those systems directly relates to how efficient they are. Installing switch-mode power converters to these circuits optimizes a system so it uses the least amount of voltage necessary and can handle the change from high-use to sleep mode without frying itself.

NCSU engineers built one prototype that achieved 95 percent efficiency and cost only $0.50 to build. If this technology takes off, consumers should do a little research themselves before buying smart devices. Components like energy-efficient power converters will make all the difference as computers start bleeding into more and more common household objects.