Oct 16, 2023

10 min read

Ambient Energy is Taking the World of IoT by Storm

Ambient energy is the new talk in town as far as the Internet of Things is concerned. IoT technology has made giant strides over the past decade and this juggernaut doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon. In this post, we’ll take a beginner’s look at ambient energy technology and go over why it’s creating the buzz that it is. So, tuck in and let’s go on a little journey together.

The Internet of Things is to this age what the production line was to the early 20th century or say the world wide web to the early 90s - it represents the absolute cutting edge of technology. IoT technology has made it possible for all manner of everyday objects to be connected to the internet, opening up possibilities previously unheard of. 

When the things around us that we employ for various purposes get internet access, they are able to do a lot more things and with a lot more efficiency. For instance, let’s take the example of a running shoe - it’s essentially a commodity product that’s been around for a long time - but when fitted with IoT sensors, they are able to offer a lot more value to the user - smart shoes can, for instance, allow users to track their miles, running style, calories burned etc. This is just a simple example that shows how value can be unearthed simply by giving things around us access to the internet. 

The IoT power problem

To understand ambient energy in the right context, it is essential to take a brief look at the history of IoT technology. Around 2010, the idea of an internet that transcends traditional screen-based devices became wildly popular. In the decade that followed, we saw this nascent technology generate incredible amounts of interest globally. 

These heady days saw many massive projections for growth in this sector - some dizzying numbers were thrown around. It was estimated that within a decade and a half, we’d have a world with a staggering 1 trillion sensors connected to the internet. It soon became clear however that this wouldn’t be a walk in the park. It wasn’t because the demand wasn’t there, because it was. The sheer scope of utility that IoT brought to the table was undeniable - the problem was in powering these sensors. 

Since their inception, batteries have been the default power solution for IoT devices. Lithium-ion battery prices were falling through the 2000s and by the time the 2010s rolled around, they were ubiquitous, finding application in nearly every kind of electronic device. But for IoT devices, or nodes as they are called, batteries came with a laundry list of limitations. It is fair to say that the battery problem represented the biggest bottleneck that IoT technology faced, severely stunting its chances of living up to the trillion sensor predictions. 

Firstly, there’s the environmental costs associated with Li-ion battery production. Lithium and Cobalt are both extremely rare minerals that are endemic to small areas in the world. Both of these minerals are essential raw-materials for battery production. Lithium mining has some disastrous effects on the ecosystem, ravaging the water table and decimating the surrounding biodiversity. 

Most of the world’s cobalt deposits are localised to one country in sub-Saharan Africa - The Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation plagued by widespread conflict and political instability. Child miners are mercilessly sent into artisanal Cobalt mines for amounts ranging from 1-3$ a day! A disproportionate number of these child miners go on to develop severely debilitating health conditions thanks to the appalling conditions they have to put up with. Moreover, Cobalt mining doesn’t do any favours to the surrounding environment either. Much like in the case of lithium mining, Cobalt mining comes with some substantially pernicious environmental effects. 

The environmental issues that come with batteries don’t stop there. If producing them is harmful for the environment, discarding them is probably even worse. Even the best-made, longest-lasting batteries have a limited lifespan. At the end of their life-cycles, they are typically discarded into oceans and landfills. This is the very definition of an unsustainable practice. 

While the environmental issues that came with battery-powered IoT sensors were obviously a huge concern, there were other problems to be considered as well. 

For one, setting up large-scale IoT networks requires a sizeable initial investment. In the early years of IoT technology, a lot of businesses were apprehensive about coughing up these amounts especially when battery-replacements and periodic maintenance were factored in. The cost of periodic checks and manual battery replacements failed to justify the benefits that these systems brought to the table, in many cases. It neither made sense from a logistics standpoint, nor from a purely economic standpoint. 

There was a growing cry from within the industry to try and find an alternative power solution that could circumvent these challenges and help IoT technology continue its explosive growth trajectory towards the prophesied 1 trillion sensor mark!

Enter ambient energy

Ambient energy, or energy harvesting technology, emerged as the most viable alternative for batteries in the world of microelectronics. 

So, what is ambient energy?

Ambient energy essentially refers to the vast untapped reservoir of energy all around us - in the form of heat, sound, electromagnetic waves etc. Ambient energy harvesting is the harnessing of this energy and converting it into usable electrical energy. 

How does this work, you ask?

Imagine this - at this very moment, you are surrounded by an invisible ocean of electromagnetic energy, swirling all around you. The electronic devices that we use emit this energy in the form of radio-frequency waves. Ambient energy harvesting aims to harness small quantities of this ambient energy and store it for later use in capacitors. This, in a nutshell, is how RF (radiofrequency) energy harvesting works. Other energy harvesting modalities use the same principles to harvest energy from other sources of ambient energy. 

With ambient energy, we are able to completely eliminate the need for batteries in microelectronics. The long list of difficult problems posed by battery-powered IoT is basically eliminated in one fell swoop. 

When IoT devices use ambient energy instead of batteries, their ecological footprint is dramatically reduced. Moreover, they make a whole lot of sense from an economic standpoint - no replacement costs, slashed maintenance costs and longer-lives. 

As we entered the second half of the last decade, it was becoming clear as daylight to everyone within the industry that ambient energy was here to stay. As the years rolled along, more and more players started throwing their hats into the ring, coming up with highly compelling energy harvesting powered IoT-products. 

Types of ambient energy

There are various kinds of ambient energy around us and we’ve managed to find ways to harvest quite a few of them. 

The most popular kinds of ambient energy employed in energy harvesting based devices are RF energy harvesting, solar energy harvesting, piezoelectric energy harvesting, thermoelectric energy harvesting and acoustic energy harvesting. 

We’ve already taken a look at RF energy in the example from the previous section. Solar is pretty self-explanatory too - light from the sun is a huge, untapped source of energy and with the right device, this energy can be converted into electrical energy and stored for later use. Similarly, various everyday appliances put out a lot of energy in the form of vibrations. This vibrational energy can be harvested in a similar way and used in electronic devices - this is called piezoelectric energy harvesting. 

Today, the market is flooding with many other kinds of niche energy harvesting technologies that are market-ready and being featured in some compelling products - Here are a few examples

Advantages of ambient energy

Ambient energy allows microelectronics to go completely batteryless, enabling a host of advantages to both consumers and businesses alike. Let’s explore some of these massive benefits that ambient energy brings to the table. 

First and foremost, there are the environmental benefits - as we saw earlier, the battery industry is mired in some serious humanitarian and ecological problems that are hard to look past. After all, no amount of technological progress can justify wanton destruction of life. Ambient energy enables IoT node devices to be 100% self-powered. When adjusted for scale, this makes a huge difference - if hundreds of billions of IoT-devices go batteryless and opt for self-powered, ambient energy based solutions, that will represent a serious dent in the number of batteries produced per year and perhaps more importantly, in the number of batteries that will end up in landfills and oceans.

Furthermore, ambient energy scores big in terms of convenience, ease-of-use and practicality. After all, no one likes replacing batteries. We all know how annoying it is to remember to buy batteries for our remote controls when they die.  Now imagine having to do the same for hundreds or even thousands of IoT node devices deployed across various locations in a large facility - it can be a major nuisance. This challenge is simply inevitable with battery-based solutions. After all, batteries have a finite lifespan and no matter how durable they are, when there are hundreds of them, they are always going to be a nuisance. 

It’s not just a matter of convenience though. As far as businesses are concerned, the biggest priority is always going to be centred around the economic side of things. And this is where ambient energy really shines in comparison to its battery-powered peers - think about it - an IoT network typically consists of multiple types of sensors deployed in various locations. The costs associated with performing periodic maintenance and battery replacements on these nodes can be prohibitive for businesses. With batteryless IoT, these costs are simply eliminated. 

Furthermore, opting for ambient energy harvesting slashes the material costs associated with IoT node devices. After all, battery-powered IoT devices need to account for a battery-hatch in which the battery is housed. With ambient energy, there is simply no need for a battery-hatch, which in turn dramatically reduces the BOM (Bill of Materials) cost. What this means for business owners is that they are able to simultaneously reduce manufacturing and operational costs, which in turn, translates to bigger profits. 

And the sleekness of energy harvesting based devices also means that product designers are afforded a greater level of freedom and creativity.

The future is batteryless

People all around the world are waking up to the terrible reality of ecological damage. There is growing alarm worldwide and a widespread sense of urgency to try and find solutions to prevent a full-blown ecological collapse. 

Companies are catching up to this reality and are themselves waking up to the fact that modern consumers have uncompromising standards that they expect businesses to live up to. In this climate of extreme environmental concern and widespread anxiety, there is immense pressure on companies and businesses to embrace sustainable business practices at every level of operation. 

This points to a future where we will increasingly see low-power and ultra-low-power devices switching to ambient energy harvesting. Today, the power of IoT to foster innovation and bring about disruption is plain for all to see. There is no doubt that the market for IoT is going to grow exponentially over the next few decades. As the number of connected devices grows to many hundreds of millions or even billions, the need to go batteryless will be an imperative, not a choice. 

All this points to one thing and one thing only - the future of IoT is 100% batteryless!. 

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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