Blog Post

5 ways to power the Internet of things

The Internet of Things could have a mind-boggling 24 billion devices connected by 2020 and that means there will be more than three times the amount of connected devices as people on the planet by that time. So, how will the world power all of these gadgets and machine-driven devices? The answer, beyond plugging all of those devices into the grid, will include farming tiny slices of power when available, from sources like the sun, vibrations, mechanical energy, heat and more.

Here’s five ways the Internet of things will be powered:

The sun: During the day, when the sun shines down, it’s a relatively passive energy source that largely remains untapped. A couple years ago Peregrine Semiconductor started working with Kansas State University researchers on an energy-harvesting radio that gains power from 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. Another more recent innovation is researchers developing organic and polymer-based solar cells that are thinner than spider silk that MIT Tech Review says “can be bent and crumpled and still produce power.”

Flipping a light switch: GreenPeak is a company that sells battery-free wireless chips and network hardware that can create wireless sensor networks for industrial and commercial buildings that don’t use batteries, but harvest energy when it’s available. GreenPeak has been developing tech for “Self Powered Switches,” which are essentially a light that can run off of the power generated by switching a light switch on and off. A company called EnOcean is developing this sensor tech, too.

Human motion: People powered motion sparks the imagination of jogging powering iPods and footsteps providing juice for iPhone. Remember this energy collecting knee brace?

Vibration: UK firm Perpetuum makes a device that capture vibrations and converts them into energy. The last time I had talked to the company it was selling its products to industrial companies for between $750 and $1,000 for various volumes of 500 to 1000 nodes. Widely accepted standards could bring that cost down, and developers could incorporate the technology more into the residential environment.

Changes in temperature: As MIT Tech Review writes: “devices could be powered just by differences in temperature between the body (or another warm object) and the surrounding air, eliminating or reducing the need for a battery.”

5 Responses to “5 ways to power the Internet of things”

  1. Hi Katie. You may remember the world’s first passive kinetic energy charger for hand-held electronics, the nPower® PEG. We are testing prototypes of a new, more powerful version, and here are some user comments.

    Unlike the knee thingy, the nPower® PEG is passive, requiring no action upon it by the user. We are launching the new version at Earth Day on The Mall, April 22.

  2. Dilip Andrade

    In an internet of things, the issues around powering devices come down to different approaches to the problem. Although I would never rule out new technological solutions and approaches, many of them are often small niche solutions or are overly exotic. As we’ve seen from mobile devices, exotic battery solutions aren’t turned to as often as bigger batteries and improvements in the energy efficiencies of the device components.

    When we develop sensor networks, the problems associated with powering them become increasingly more complex as the sensors become more remotely distributed. Power supplies with mechanical parts introduce more points for failure in a device that may not be easily accessible.

    A conservative design strategy will result in devices using conventional power supplies and battery technology, and a more efficient use of the available power. Work to reduce the power consumption of a device by reducing unnecessary signaling yields a better return on investment than the development of an exotic power source.

    As it stands, the most experience we have with deploying sensors that we have trouble accessing is in exploration of space and the arctic. When you can’t access the device to fix it, solid-state sources of power are a big benefit.

    The solution will likely fall to a mix of new technology and improvements in the signaling… but my bet for the near term is that the biggest results will come from the efficiency side of things.

  3. frank15

    Great article Katie! Powering 24 billion sensors is one of many issues we’ll have to overcome to be able to fully utilize the internet of things. Power becomes a huge issue when you’re constrained both by product cost and off-grid installations. We’ve had conversations with potential clients about using batteries with solar recharging, but this can get fairly expensive if the power requirements for a given product are very large. Let’s hope some of the technologies you mention above are commercialized very soon!
    Frank Grazzini
    Co-Founder, TelemetryWeb, Inc

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