Chip Companies Eye Energy-Harvesting

kstateperegrineChip companies are starting to offer lower power chips in an effort to help their customers reduce their electricity bills, but further down the pipeline, chip companies are examining how to incorporate energy-harvesting technology into new devices. This morning there’s news that Peregrine Semiconductor is working with Kansas State University researchers on an energy-harvesting radio that never needs a battery-change.

The Kansas State Researchers — Professor Bill Kuhn and master’s student Xiaohu Zhang — decided to use solar for the energy-harvesting radio and they’ve developed a device using a board made of solar cells taken from low-end calculators. The rest of the setup (see photo) includes a low-power integrated chip — originally developed for a NASA Mars project — to store the data, and a radio to transmit the data every five seconds. Technology like this could be used in a variety of sensor networks and control systems, including a building thermostat or lighting system, as well as temperature and stress gauges for bridges and other structures.

There are other ways to harvest energy for devices, and the Kansas State researchers are also looking at methods like electrochemical, mechanical or thermal energy.

Peregrine’s not the only company interested in the space. Intel is also working on a variety of energy-harvesting technologies for both sensor networks and consumer electronics and cell phones, which would draw power from their environment, including the sun and vibrations. Intel’s CTO Justin Rattner detailed some of the company’s more blue-sky lab plans at an event earlier this month.

Startups are moving quickly in the battery-free energy-harvesting space, too. Netherlands-based startup GreenPeak, which was formed in July 2007 through a merger of two wireless companies, is selling battery-free wireless chips and network hardware that rely on harnessing tiny amounts of energy from movement or solar. GreenPeak CEO and founder Cees Links told us that batteries are the barrier to more buildings having wireless sensor networks that can help cut energy consumption. Expect to see the company, which is backed by €10 million ($14.3 million) from investors like DFJ Esprit and Motorola Ventures, moving more into the U.S. market next year.

Image courtesy of Kansas State.

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