Dec 20, 2023

13 min read

Ambient Energy: The Key to Sustainable IoT Revolution

We live in a fast-paced world that is being reshaped by connected technologies. IoT technology has left a dramatic impact on the modern world and this trend is only set to continue in the years to come. Batteryless IoT powered by ambient energy is possibly the biggest thing to happen to the world of connected tech, in its brief history. In this post, we take a deep dive into the world of ambient energy and why it's nothing short of indispensable for the Internet of Things to continue to grow and transform our lives.

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We live in a world driven by technology - there is simply no escaping the fact that modern information technology has had a decisive impact on the way we live our lives today. First, there was the internet - the internet changed the way we interface with each other and the world - right from the way we buy groceries and plane tickets, all the way to how we find life partners and life-making skills. As information technology kept improving itself, we got the Internet of Things in the last decade - and the world has simply never been the same since. 

What the Internet of Things did was to take the internet, which had already become a tool of invaluable importance to us and break it free from the shackles of traditional computing devices. With IoT, the boundaries that separated the digital world from the physical world became blurred. We now had the possibility of connecting all manner of everyday objects to the internet and reap all kinds of benefits in the process. 

So, how does the internet of things do this? How is it able to connect say your air conditioner or your running shoes to the internet?

The answer is - sensors. Wireless sensors form the beating heart of any IoT setup - they are best understood as tiny, little computers that can be incorporated into pretty much anything your imagination comes up with. These sensors, or nodes as they are called in IoT parlance, collect various kinds of data from their environment and transmit this information to the web, where it can be processed towards various ends. This, in a nutshell, is how IoT technology works. 

In the early years of IoT, sensors were battery-powered. This was the best possible configuration for them at the time - there was simply no other viable option to power little nodes wirelessly. 

However it wasn’t too long until we discovered that powering sensors with batteries was far from an elegant solution - battery-powered IoT sensors came with a laundry list of issues that curtailed the explosive growth that was predicted for IoT just a few years ago - first off, there was obvious problem that batteries tend to run out - if we were to deploy hundreds of millions of sensors to create a connected world, we needed to find a better solution. 

Then, there was the issue of sustainability - at a time when humanity faces a do or die situation with respect to the ecological health of the planet, it simply made zero sense to power sensors with batteries - after all, the Internet of Things was always intended to be a system of hundreds of millions of interconnected nodes (if not billions) - this would imply hundreds of millions of discarded batteries year on year. The environmental ramifications were staggering to say the least. 

Battery replacements also represented an additional cost that businesses would have to bear over the lifetime of these systems - that was a big factor in the sluggish adoption of IoT technology at scale in the early years. 

It was obvious to everyone in the industry that we had to come up with a better power solution for IoT nodes - and as is often the case, necessity drove innovation and we came up with an alternative straight out of science fiction - batteryless IoT powered by energy harvesting technology. 

Batteryless technology for IoT devices was a pathbreaking development to say the least - in essence, it refers to IoT nodes that can pretty much power themselves - crazy huh?

How do they do this?

Well, that’s thanks to the magic of energy harvesting technology - energy harvesting means that the device is able to draw in tiny amounts of usable power from ambient sources - ambient energy is all around us - in the form of electromagnetic waves, vibrations, heat, light etc. At any given point in time, there is an ocean of ambient energy around us just swirling around. Ambient energy harvesting is a way to put this energy to constructive use. 

We did tell you - this stuff could be straight out of a sci-fi novel. 

Ambient energy harvesting proved to be such an elegant solution for IoT devices that it very soon became the gold standard within the industry for ultra-low-power electronics. Very soon, a number of ambient energy modalities were being employed for IoT devices - RF energy harvesting, thermoelectric energy harvesting, piezoelectric energy harvesting, triboelectric energy harvesting etc. 

In this post, we wanted to take a look at 10 reasons why ambient energy harvesting is truly indispensable for the future of IoT technology - 

1. Sustainability

This one has to be at the top of the list. Ambient energy comes with stellar sustainability chops when compared to battery-based solutions. Firstly there’s the e-waste problem that we spoke about earlier - it is estimated that we throw away a mind-numbing 3.3 billion batteries per year - these batteries end up in landfills and oceans - not a pleasant thing to think about by any stretch. 

With ambient energy, we are able to circumvent this terrible problem - Batteryless IoT devices essentially power themselves for life - this means that over a few years, we will be able to make a serious dent in the number of batteries that end up in our oceans. Moreover, there is also an unsavoury human rights angle to battery production - Lithium-ion batteries require rare minerals such as Lithium and Cobalt. Both Lithium and Cobalt production is mired in environmental and human-rights issues - Cobalt is mined by child miners who work in dangerous conditions in sub-saharan Africa. Lithium mining, on the other hand, ravages entire ecosystems and smashes water tables. 

Worryingly, we are not anywhere close to getting rid of Li-ion batteries altogether - but at least we can all agree that we shouldn’t rely on them any more than necessary. Thanks to ambient energy, we are at least able to offer a viable green alternative when it comes to IoT microelectronics. 

2. Reduced Maintenance

Devices that are powered by ambient energy are super low-frills when compared to their bulky, battery-powered predecessors. The lowest hanging fruit is obviously that they don’t need battery replacements. Over the lifetime of a large IoT deployment, that adds up to a lot of saved maintenance calls. But it’s not just that either - because they have fewer moving parts, energy harvesting powered IoT systems require less maintenance overall. They’re pretty much hassle-free for many years at a time. 

3. Increased Device Lifespans

Self-powered IoT devices typically have significantly longer lifespans than traditional battery powered devices. This is a great incentive for small to medium businesses, in particular - they don’t need to fork out uncomfortable sums of money every now and then towards replacements and upgrades - this makes self-powered devices a much safer bet, economically speaking. 

4. Budget Friendly

The sustainability angle is all well and good but at the end of the day, businesses make decisions that are primarily driven by economic incentives - and this is where ambient energy comes through as that rare eco-friendly alternative that actually makes economic sense as well. 

Because they don’t use batteries, like we said earlier, batteryless IoT devices save businesses a sizable chunk of change in terms of battery replacement costs. Moreover, they also save businesses a ton of money in terms of reduced maintenance costs. But it’s not just that - batteryless sensors are cheaper to manufacture than their traditional battery-powered counterparts. Because they tend to be lighter and sleeker, they come with a much cheaper bill of materials (BOM) cost. 

A few cents saved on each sensor adds up to a significant amount when you have to account for a large deployment of sensors over a farm or a factory - this makes business owners much less queasy about making a large investment in an IoT setup. 

5. Enhanced Functionality

Because of their sleeker builds and power autonomy, batteryless IoT devices are able to go places where their bulky cousins simply can’t. Batteryless IoT opens the floodgates in terms of what’s possible for IoT devices - applications like smart implants, tree-top sensors and fully-automated predictive maintenance systems can only really work with ambient energy. 

This allows for a greater level of freedom when it comes to innovating newer IoT solutions. It also allows product designers to work with a greater level of abandon, having to account for fewer constraints in terms of size and design. 

6. No lags, No interruptions

Ambient energy offers the guarantee of reliable and consistent power supply. It is hard to overstate the value this brings to the table - after all, the very point of IoT is to allow us to have eyes where humans can’t easily reach - think about sensors on windmills or predictive maintenance systems tucked away in the deep recesses of an industrial rig - these are places that are hard to access. 

With battery powered sensors, there is always the problem of power interruptions which could result in expensive downtimes - this problem is entirely eliminated with batteryless sensors. Because they are able to offer consistent power supply, data collection isn’t interrupted. THis allows these devices to collect and transmit information much more reliably while also contributing significantly to the quality of the data streams gathered. 

7. Better Scalability

Ambient energy allows for IoT solutions to be scaled much  more easily - this is because power constraints don’t have to be accounted for and like we mentioned earlier, cost isn’t as much of a barrier either. This makes it an easier proposition to deploy a large number of nodes - new nodes can be deployed into networks without much thought as each node is energy-independent and doesn’t need a centralised grid. 

8. Greater Flexibility

Batteryless IoT offers a greater degree of flexibility as to the location of node devices - devices can be deployed in far-flung and remote locations without much hassle. With battery powered devices, the harder the device is to access, the more it will present problems later during its lifespan in terms of battery replacements and maintenance visits. 

But with ambient energy, this issue is completely circumvented. Devices can be deployed pretty much anywhere. 

9. Supports Higher Density Networks

Ambient energy allows us to deploy high-density sensor networks - this is advantageous for a number of reasons. With IoT, the name of the game is data collection - the better and more granular the data that is collected, the more utility the solution is going to offer in the long run - as simple as that. 

With ambient energy, this is made practical and tenable. Let’s take the example of smart cities - this is an IoT use-case that is extremely storied and spoken about - in this kind of a complex setup, a large number of nodes of various kinds need to be deployed over a large area. The more nodes we manage to squeeze into a design like this, the better it is going to serve its intended purpose - this is only realistically possible with batteryless node devices. 

Environmental monitoring is another popular IoT use-case where the same principles apply - if we’re unable to get a high density of sensors, the whole point of the exercise is undermined. In these kinds of use-cases, batteryless IoT really comes to the fore as a very practical and robust solution. 

10. Energy efficiency

In addition to individually being power autonomous, batteryless sensors also contribute significantly towards reducing the overall power consumption of large IoT networks - this opens the doors to a more energy efficient and sustainable digital ecosystem. 

With ambient energy, we are able to create models of high-efficiency networking that will stand us in good stead as we move towards newer technological innovations to combat the largest issues of our time. 

Summing Up

Ambient energy is not just a cool, environmentally friendly power alternative for IoT devices. Far from being a gimmick, this technology is actually the only viable option we’ve got if IoT is to truly spread its wings and realise its massive potential. But it’s not just about microcontrollers and sensors either. It’s much more than that - ambient energy represents a step in the right direction when it comes to approaching our world with a more sustainable and holistic mindset.

Today, we see a number of ticking time bombs that threaten our survival on this planet - in the form of ecological disasters, food shortages, pollution etc. Our shortsightedness and haphazardness as a species is what got us here. It is very clear that if we are to right these wrongs and create a better world for our future generations, we need to avoid the mistakes that got us here in the first place - and batteryless IoT stands testament to the fact that this is not only possible, but already taking place. 

By offering an alternative to a sub-standard model without skimping on cost-effectiveness and reliability, ambient energy harvesting stands as a ray of hope for the future of technology as a whole. If we are able to come up with such an elegant and environmentally sound solution to a difficult problem, then it stands to reason that we might actually be able to do the same against the other existential issues that confront us today. a

As the tech evolves, ambient energy will no doubt be harnessed in more significant ways, paving the way for a greener and more sensible future. 

About the author

Abishek Swaminathen

Senior Content Manager

Abishek is ONiO’s senior content manager. A medical doctor by profession, he stumbled onto a writing career almost by accident, as it were. Words have enthralled Abishek since the day he first held a book and at ONiO, he channels his inner wordsmith towards providing our subscribers with regular doses of fun and informative content.

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