Could Energy-Harvesting Technology Power IoT Devices of the Future?

Internet of Things (IoT) devices have significantly opened opportunities in industries ranging from health care to agriculture. However, persistent challenges arise as designers, engineers and others involved in developing these products figure out how to keep them powered.


Frequent battery changes are inconvenient and could even be impossible, depending on the product’s intended use. That’s why people are aggressively researching energy-harvesting technology that lets these items get power from sources other than internal batteries.


It’s particularly challenging to be too reliant on battery-powered IoT devices in industries like manufacturing and logistics. Many factories now have 24/7 operations, meaning there are no feasible downtime periods for recharging. It’s also understandably inconvenient if a battery dies in the middle of a shipping container’s lengthy, multicontinent journey.


Fortunately, people are making remarkable progress with solutions that get energy from sources other than internal batteries. Here are some exciting examples of up-and-coming products and the cutting-edge research making them possible.


Exploring the Specifics of Sustainable, Self-Powered Sensors

People are increasingly interested in sustainable technology. A self-powered IoT sensor would be a big step toward improved sustainability.


A Simon Fraser University team is working on a project that involves creating printed semiconductors that go into self-powered sensors. They envision a future where ambient light and radio frequency waves power sensors instead of batteries. Although semiconductors are ubiquitous in today’s society, there’s room for improvement in their associated production method. Standard ways of making them are complex, expensive and energy-intensive.


However, people can also make printable semiconductors with fewer materials and more-efficient methods, resulting in a lower carbon footprint and more reasonable costs. Manufacturers also use 3D printing to accelerate their prototyping process, which can streamline production.


However, the Simon Fraser University group conducted an analysis and identified a priority of making printable electronics with few or no unnecessary materials. They believe that approach would make the method scalable at a low cost. They want to build those printed electronics with self-powered and low-powered technologies.


The researchers see a future where everything from smart buildings to manufacturing plants is powered with energy-harvesting technology. Supply chain resilience is another part of the work, with those working on the project believing their efforts could reduce countries’ dependence on distant suppliers.


Investigating Energy-Harvesting Technology Running on Light Energy

Many studies into energy harvesting technology center on widely available potential power sources. Succeeding in that area would build a firm foundation for later success. It’s also favorable for piezoelectric technologies since many already use energy sparingly. For example, a piezoelectric buzzer’s typical current consumption is less than 30 milliamperes, and their versatility makes them popular for various applications.


Regardless of the type of energy-harvesting technology used, it makes sense to focus on the easiest possibilities to scale. In one recent case, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) developed a solution to power an IoT temperature sensor that runs on light energy.


The team built several small, modular photovoltaic modules constructed of various materials. They then hooked the least efficient from the batch — one made of silicon — to an LED light. Tests showed that powering the module solely with LED produced more energy than consumed. This suggests the IoT sensor would run continuously with exposure to light, preventing people from needing to recharge or replace a battery.


Another possibility that uses light came when scientists built an artificial leaf powered by rain or wind. Amazingly, the device can get 40 volts of electricity from a single raindrop. It’s easy to see how such a solution could benefit environmental or wildlife monitoring. Alternatively, businesses could use the devices on corporate property to collect data with devices that don’t detract from aesthetic beauty.


Creating Opportunities for Improvements in Wearables and Smart Homes

Many people are curious about learning more about the links between energy-harvesting technology and the human body. After all, they already use them to track their health or help maintain ergonomically friendly postures while working in factories. It would be even more helpful if individuals could power these devices by doing natural things like walking.


Researchers at the National University of Singapore built an energy-harvesting technology that relies on a single device — such as a mobile phone placed in a pocket — for energy. It can power itself and up to nine other devices for over 10 hours. The key is that the single item takes energy via a process called body-coupled power transmission. Although people must charge and recharge the powering gadget, there’s no need to do that with others.


The body becomes the medium for energy harvesting and power transmission. The researchers also looked at ways to harvest electromagnetic waves from the environment. Since that approach also works, it improves this technology’s flexibility.


Another example of energy harvesting technology for wearables came from insoles presented to the U.S. Air Force. The products have an orthotic design and never need charging because they get energy from the wearer walking, running and exercising. These accessories track steps, temperature, heart rate and respiration while also detecting if the user falls.


Commercially available options for IoT energy-harvesting devices are still extremely limited. One recent agreement between a robotics company and an IoT energy-harvesting technology business shows potential, though. It may result in connected home products that last for years on one battery or never need them.


Energy-Harvesting Devices Not Yet Mainstream

People should be excited about what’s possible. However, they must think realistically and realize it could be years before they can buy mainstream IoT products powered by energy harvesting. It will take time for researchers to determine the best ways to create these products and make them readily available to the public.


Even so, it’s an ongoing challenge to figure out how to keep IoT devices powered, particularly as people frequently use them in increasingly diverse — and often remote — areas. Turning to energy sources that are ubiquitous and feasible to harness represents meaningful progress that could forever alter how companies and individuals use connected products.


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