Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow as emerging technologies and devices are constantly being developed and added to the internet. I’ve looked at how information produced by IoT is communicated and considered how to process the data. But what powers all those devices and sensors? In some situations, such as agricultural technologies, extension cords are out of the question as is regularly changing batteries. In response, researchers are working to harvest energy to power these devices.
A 2015 IEEE article highlighted three promising areas for harvesting energy—mechanical energy, heat, and electromagnetic emissions. In terms of mechanical energy, they highlighted a small conformable piezoelectric device developed at the University of Illinois to power a pacemaker from a heartbeat. The heart’s own contractions would power a device that helps keep itself beating regularly. This would eliminate the need to surgically replace batteries.
The article also highlighted a small device that harvests energy from the vibration of trains, created by Perpetuum. The harvester is installed near the wheels and captures energy from the travel motion to power sensors that can monitor wheel bearings and wheel travel on the rail. This is in production now and helps to prevent rail accidents by detecting problems early. The harvester has a 100 year life expectancy.
South Korea’s KAIST university has developed a thermoelectric generator that is embedded in glass fabric and generates power from body heat. This could power wearable devices or be embedded in the device itself, thus providing its own power source.
Here is what I am thinking: what if we can print these thermoelectric materials on our 3-D printers and create our own generators? I may be on to something. I probably create enough heat while riding my bicycle to power my smart phone and computer.
In Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged,” the hero invented a method for harvesting electrostatic energy from the atmosphere and eventually powered a small village. I suspect that we have been thinking about it even longer than that, but our efforts are still in their infancy. Researchers at the University of Waterloo have been working to improve collection antennas and hope to be able to capture emissions on a large scale. They are working on materials to more efficiently capture energy.
It is an exciting time for research in this area with breakthroughs in physics, material science, and microelectronics all converging on the singular problem of how to replace fossil fuels with clean energy capture. We have a lot of new devices coming that will need to be powered, hopefully with a sustainable energy source. Are we close to solving this mystery? Let me know your thoughts.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.