An inflexion point for energy harvesting and the Internet of Things

July 14, 2014 // By Tony Armstrong
An inflexion point for energy harvesting and the Internet of Things
Tony Armstrong of Linear Technology looks at how the Internet of Things is driving energy harvesting solutions in respect of wearable electronics.

The portable power application space is both broad and diverse. Products range from wireless sensor nodes (WSNs) that consume average power measured in microwatts to cart-based medical or data acquisition systems with multi-hundred Watt-hour battery packs. However, despite this variety, a few trends have emerged; namely, designers continue to demand more power in their products to support increased functionality and they want to charge the battery from any available power source.

The first trend would imply increasing battery capacities. Unfortunately, users are often impatient and these increased capacities must be charged in a reasonable amount of time, which leads to increased charge currents.  The second trend requires tremendous flexibility from the battery charging solution since they need to handle a broad range of input sources and power.  Furthermore, the proliferation of wireless sensors supporting the “Internet of Things” (IoT) has increased the demand for small, compact and efficient power converters tailored to untethered lower power devices.

One of the more recent emerging market segments covered under the IoT which is particularly interesting from an energy harvesting perspective is the wearable electronics category. Although still in its infancy, this segment includes such products as Samsung Galaxy Gear and Google Glass. Nevertheless, one specific form factor that has garnered high expectations is that of the wrist watch. I am not talking about the Dick Tracy 1940s 2-way wrist radio in a wrist watch form factor from the classic American comic.

I am referring to today’s versions which have voice and data communication, internet browsing and streaming video capabilities afforded via a Smart phone. There are many examples on the market already, a quick search on Amazon will show over a half-a-dozen such offerings, a prominent example being Qualcomm’s Toq. Nevertheless, it, and many others, look as if they are being overshadowed by the much anticipated and much rumored iWatch from Apple.

Of course, wearable technology is not just for humans, there are many applications for animals too. Recent examples include ultrasound-delivering treatment patches and electronic saddle optimization for horses to collars on other animals that variously track, identify, diagnose and so on. Regardless of the application, most of these devices require a battery as the main power source. However, for human-based applications, it looks like there will soon be wearable fabrics that can generate electricity from the sun.

You can think of them as “Power” suits! One company at the forefront of such research is the European Union funded project Dephotex, which has developed methods to make photovoltaic material light and flexible enough to be worn. Naturally, the material will convert photons into electrical energy, which can then be used to power various electronic devices worn by the user, or to charge their primary batteries, or even a combination of both of these.

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