Why ambient energy is the way forward for IoT
Energy is literally all around us, all the time. The very place you are sitting right now is a steaming cascade of energy just sloshing around - What if there was a way to harness these massive amounts of energy and harness it for practical purposes? That would be quite amazing wouldn’t it? Batteries are great and all, but what if there was a way to harvest energy from the very space around us? Intrigued? In our new post, we tell you all about the miracle of ambient energy harvesting and why it's exploding in popularity in the world of IoT.
Nikola Tesla is undoubtedly one of the standout minds of the modern age, if not of all time. He was a man of incredible genius and vision, as the world has come to recognize in recent times. One of his most radical ideas was to generate massive amounts of electricity and distribute it for free to all the people of the world. His genius was well ahead of his time and he was derided during his lifetime as a lunatic.
He himself had nothing but scorn and derision for the whole enterprise of generating energy from fossil fuels and in the process, poisoning the very air that we breathe - calling the powerful pioneers of fossil-fuel-based energy “unimaginative people, consumed by self-interest”.
Tesla was eons ahead of his time - no doubt - the mind simply boggles to think that such a genius lived in the 19th century, a time before automobiles were commercially available. However, not much has changed considering we’re nearly a hundred and something years past the time of Tesla - our global appetite for energy has only grown exponentially in this time and we haven’t been able to find very many imaginative ways to keep up with the demand in a sustainable way. Companies, lobby groups, and nations are just as consumed by self-interest as they were in Tesla’s times.
But indeed, we have made some glorious achievements in the meantime - The internet has allowed us to connect our globe in a way that was scarcely imaginable even 30 years ago - Thanks to advances in information technology, we have witnessed explosive advancement in nearly all walks of human life including healthcare, supply chain management, retail, education, well you name it.
Nearly two centuries after the advent of the industrial revolution, we stand at the cusp of a new technological revolution - one that promises to dramatically alter the way we interact with each other and the world around us - The Internet of Things. In the ensuing sections, we’ll take a closer look at what makes IoT so promising and how ambient power is possibly the most important innovation in the world of IoT.
Today, ambient energy harvesting has emerged as the power solution of choice for wireless IoT sensors and node devices.
What is Ambient Energy?
Ambient energy refers to the vast quantities of energy that surround us at any given moment in time, in whichever form - be it light, sound, radio waves, vibrational energy etc. You might remember having learned in high school physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed - i.e the total amount of energy within any closed system remains constant at all times.
On some level, all the technological progress that we have achieved as a civilization can be put down to our ability to harness, convert and deploy energy - not all forms of energy are useful to us - for instance, there is a lot of kinetic energy contained in the wind. But, in this form, it is rather hard for us to employ this energy to our own ends. However, with the help of a windmill, we are able to convert this kinetic energy into electrical energy which can be stored for later use in a number of ways.
Any process that we employ to convert energy from one form to another is, by design, wasteful and inefficient. In the process of converting one form of energy into another more desirable form of energy, we lose a bunch of energy to the environment in the form of heat, sound, vibrations, etc - this is what is being referred to as ambient energy.
The rise of IoT and connected tech
Cut back to 2003 and you would find hyped mentions of an emerging technological modality called the “internet of things”. Unless you belonged to rarefied circles of tech-insiders or consumed esoteric tech journals, chances are, you only ever encountered it as a term that was, at best, abstract, nebulous, futuristic, and utterly removed from the real and concrete.
However, very soon, things began to explode for IoT, as it came to be called. We started finding that an increasing number of the objects around us were now fitted with wireless sensors and wireless MCUs that allowed them to interface with the internet.
More importantly, it was around this time that the human race adopted the smartphone en masse - the internet, which was very much something only nerdy enthusiasts and academic types fiddled around with until the early 2000s, suddenly became an indispensable part of every waking moment of our lives - just about anyone and everyone started expecting to be hooked on to the internet at all times - this signaled a massive shift - one that would dramatically change the way our lives would look in just a handful of years.
Thanks to smartphones, the general public really understood, for the first time ever, just how powerful and multi-dimensional a tool the internet was - it was an understanding that was embodied in everyday life - not theoretical, not abstruse - whether the masses understood the ingenuity and sheer complexity of the whole shebang or not, they sure were enjoying the privileges and conveniences that it brought to them - we were beginning the take for granted that we should be able to speak to our cousin 3 continents away, at the drop of a hat. Then, it was only a matter of time that the hardware that made portable internet devices possible - microprocessors, wireless sensors, MCUs, micro-supercapacitors, and the like - became super reliable and inexpensive. Then, it was only a matter of time before we started incorporating smart sensing capabilities into all manner of devices and objects around us.
This marked the beginning of the IoT age proper - in addition to highly capable and portable devices dedicated to telephony and internet access, we now had everyday appliances and objects like refrigerators, air-conditioners, shoes, and even tee-shirts that could interface with the internet in real-time. More importantly, we began to incorporate wireless sensors and MCUs into industrial machinery and business locations. What this enabled us to do was have access to tons and tons of highly-nuanced information that could be used towards optimization, efficiency, and economy. What was once just a watch, could now be yet another portal to the web and in the process, offer an entire gamut of possibilities to the end-user.
The IoT power problem
In the early years of smart technology and connected objects, some stratospheric predictions were made about how the number of connected objects in the world is going to witness explosive growth. These were by no means ill-considered estimates - after all, what’s not to like about connecting everything around us to the internet? Even to the naive bystander, it is quite easy to see why a technology that allows for that level of connectedness and seamless flow of information would be an immediately attractive proposition to just about everyone.
However, although connected objects did see large-scale adoption worldwide, the numbers were never quite up there with what was predicted. A key reason for this was that although we’d come up with robust, compact, and cheap sensors, we’d yet to figure out a way to power them sensibly. In most cases, wireless sensors and IoT nodes were powered by batteries and although this was an adequate solution, it was by no means an elegant one.
In the wake of rising global temperatures and unprecedented global concern about the sustainability of modern civilization, the idea of billions of batteries powering billions of IoT nodes only to inevitably end up in oceans and landfills did not seem like a great idea, for obvious reasons. Moreover, manufacturers weren’t that keen on adopting IoT technology if it meant more overhead costs on top of the initial expense involved in integrating IoT systems.
On top of all this, batteries simply weren’t reliable when the sheer scale and size of the typical IoT network were accounted for - let’s take the example of an agricultural facility that uses IoT technology - a typical smart farm would involve dozens if not hundreds of wireless sensors deployed at various strategic locations across the farm - these sensors, or IoT nodes as they are called, are incredibly tiny devices that are usually smaller than your average postage stamp - now, if these nodes were to be powered by batteries, that would pose a significant challenge in terms of maintenance and replacement costs. Moreover, quite a bit of labor would be involved in this whole exercise - which kind of defeats the whole point of going IoT in the first place.
This was the major reason why the adoption of IoT networks was majorly stifled for the better part of the previous decade. We already had the ability to produce high-quality semiconductor chips and the other requisite hardware at very attractive prices - but what we didn’t have was a power solution that truly fit the bill and made the proposition hard to resist.
The battery-problem notwithstanding, quite a lot of industries started integrating IoT technology and wireless sensor networks en-masse - this was further testament to the fact that slow adoption wasn’t to be read as a failure of IoT technology - the utility, pertinence, and maturity of IoT weren’t in question. It was obvious that the problem was that we didn’t have a clever enough way to power our microprocessors and MCUs. The true potential of wireless sensor networks wouldn’t be unleashed until there was a widely available power solution that matched the ingenuity and sophistication of our microelectronics and semiconductor chips.
The promise of energy harvesting
Ambient energy harvesting has announced itself in a massive way in recent years, as a reliable power solution for IoT nodes and edge devices. Make no mistake, energy harvesting solutions are actually more complex than traditional battery-based solutions but as more manufacturers and consumers are coming to realize, it may be well worth the extra complexity.
Batteries have a number of shortcomings that are quite elegantly circumvented by solutions that are based on ambient energy harvesting - Firstly, by definition, batteries - irrespective of how large they are - can only carry a limited amount of energy. As such, when it comes to IoT devices, there is a major constraint on how large batteries can be - this means that battery-based solutions inevitably come with a cap - in most cases, the size of the battery required to last for the entire lifetime of the product would be prohibitively large and in all likelihood, multiple battery replacements might be required over the usage period.
The costs associated with performing thousands of battery replacements every year simply do not make sense for a manufacturer. This problem is rendered all the more complicated if the batteries in question are located in hard-to-reach places like mines, mountain tops, inside heavy machinery, etc.
More importantly, perhaps is the massive environmental cost of batteries - an alarming new EU-funded project has put out some chilling figures - At the current rate, about 78 million batteries will be thrown out every single day, worldwide, by the year 2025! Just wrap your head around that for a second - 78 million batteries per day! Where do you think these batteries are going to end up - in our oceans and landfills - or in other words, they are going to end up in our food. This might not be a pleasant thing to linger on, but it is imperative that we look for more environmentally sensible power solutions for our IoT devices.
The same EU-funded position paper highlights how ambient energy harvesting modalities such as piezoelectric energy harvesting and RF energy harvesting make sense on more than one level - allowing us to design IoT devices that don’t create battery waste throughout their entire operational cycle. The idea of powering devices with say, a 10-year life cycle, with batteries that last 2 years, is simply appalling design - no two ways about it.
Ambient energy harvesting addresses all of these issues with quite a punch - firstly, thanks to advances in materials science, we now have a ton of tenable energy harvesting solutions to fit most if not every kind of requirement. Over the lifetime of an IoT device, opting for ambient energy harvesting makes for sizeable profits to manufacturers - both in terms of the overall bill of material and cost of maintenance. In theory, batteryless, energy harvesting solutions are designed to last for a lifetime - even accounting for inevitable manufacturing defects and force majeure eventualities, they score significantly higher in comparison to using batteries.
The future is self-powered IoT
We are at a significant crossroads as a civilization - the fruits of the industrial revolution and the subsequent information revolution have reshaped our lives dramatically. Now, having brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, the challenges that face us are slightly different from those that our ancestors contended with.
Today, we are having to reckon with the ramifications of rapid industrial progress and economic growth - we are facing an existential threat in the form of imminent ecological collapse. We have sacrificed harmony and sustainability in our pursuit of rapid growth. However, this rapid growth has brought to us, unforeseen levels of prosperity, education, and possibility - IoT technology, in a way, represents the very pinnacle of human technological progress.
Now, the choice that confronts us is this - are we going to continue growing in the disjointed, chaotic, and haphazard way we have so far - and in the process, hasten the demise of all life on this planet? Or are we going to embrace a more inclusive style of growth - one that reconciles our development and sustained progress with the pressing need to rectify the neglect and apathy that has characterized our attitude towards the natural word - our only home.
Energy harvesting technology and batteryless IoT represent a move away from the myopic vision that has so often denoted our advances in technology - If we continue to make strides towards a self-powered IoT and in the process, start to embody the same principles of holistic design in other sectors, we will have made a decisive turn towards averting some of the catastrophes that loom ever so close to us today.
Going green can no longer be a clarion call or a fad - it is an absolute necessity if the enterprise of human civilization needs to survive and make it past this century - our very survival is in question - not to mention, the survival of pretty much every other form of life on the planet. We need to act and act fast towards embracing more sustainable technological modalities if we are to succeed in breaking away from the environmental collision course we are on.
IoT is growing at a tremendous pace - we are all set to live in a world with billions and billions of sensors, enabling a global network of connected things. This prospect can be one that accelerates our pursuit of global well-being, health, and prosperity - however, the margin for error is frightfully slim. It is imperative that this explosive boom in IoT adoption has to go with a wide-scale adoption of batteryless power solutions. IoT can catalyze unprecedented levels of growth and connectivity, but only if, going forward, it is going to be 100% self-powered.