No batteries, no wires: Energy harvesting comes of age with the Internet of Things

Monitoring physical phenomena from a distance can make our farms, factories, offices and homes more productive, efficient and safer. Generally, these phenomena include temperature, pressure, motion, humidity and position, for example

Remote sensing usually requires the “harvesting” of minute amounts of energy from the environment: Solar cells, piezoelectric and thermo-energy generators, even human muscles, can be used to power a transducer and a wireless transmitter. But, remember: This is the realm of microwatts and nanoamps; the fewer the components, the lower the power.

At minimum you need a harvester, a transducer, an energy storage element (capacitor, super-capacitor or battery), a step up (“boost”) or step down (“buck”) converter that provides usable voltage levels and a microcontroller with a low power mode and integrated transmitter.

The “Solar dice” reference design is a simple sensor node that combines all those components: An onboard accelerometer detects the orientation of the dice and wirelessly transmits this to a host, such as a USB dongle or smartphone.

A tri-axial accelerometer from Bosch detects the cube’s face; six thin-film solar panels from Sanyo power a DC/DC step down converter and an ultra-low-power microcontroller with an integrated RF transceiver core, running power-optimized code. The energy buffer is a 330uF low impedance capacitor.

It’s an easy way to experiment. And, potentially lucrative; applications for such sensing nodes, as part of the Internet of Things, are limited only by your imagination.

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