Powering our world with harvested ambient energy
How society can be fully connected with zero-energy devices
Imagine thousands of devices – each could be smaller than a grain of rice – spread across a farmer’s field, a factory floor or in our clothes, transmitting lifesaving or business-altering data.
The applications could span across industries. Picture that you are trying to run a farm stretching across thousands of acres. How do you check the health of your crops or cattle? With zero-energy devices, data like this could be easily accessible, at the click of a button on your mobile or tablet.
Imagine fruits and vegetables that tell you when they require care or are perfectly ripe for harvest, or even if there's a problem with the soil.
In the years to come, the number of devices requiring connectivity will move from billions to trillions. At this size and scale, low-cost and low-powered connected sensors will be non-negotiable.
To enable this, industries need time, resources and research to really understand what is or could be possible. With the ability to use a vast amount of data from a variety of sensors, the only limit to what can be achieved is our imagination.
In the years to come, the number of devices requiring connectivity will move from billions to trillions.
What are zero-energy devices?
Zero-energy devices do not require any batteries or manual charging. To generate power, these devices can harvest energy from the world around them. Future devices could be extremely small such as the size of a grain of rice and come in the form of sensors (which reports on data from readings and measurements), trackers (which report on the location of an object or living thing) or actuators (which prompt other machines to operate).
Why are they valuable?
The adoption of zero-energy devices could lead to a massive reduction in both the cost and power needed to run and maintain devices, making them more scalable. Gathering data from these devices also has the potential to drive higher productivity, pollution reduction and enriched lifestyles, without requiring any additional energy. An additional bonus is that battery-less devices are better for the environment and can be managed with easy and simple processes, from manufacturing to disposal.
Zero-energy devices can help merge the physical and digital worlds more closely, where each reality learns, adapts and responds to each other. Digital twins are key to this development, and zero-energy devices can provide the sensor data necessary to build these digital representations of the real world. As the number of zero energy devices increases, new insights and detail will emerge.
How will zero-energy devices be brought to life?
Creators of these devices will need to focus on how to reap the most amount of energy to generate the maximum amount of power in a cost-effective way. The network will then need to be capable of handling millions of devices sustainably, with limitless connectivity, cognitive capabilities and the ability to scale, adapt and work in different conditions in real time.
This sounds like quite a daunting task. However, it’s not impossible – Ericsson is working with others to realize the full benefits of what could be achieved.
Time to harvest
If you rub your hands together, the friction generates thermal energy.
This energy can then be used to power small, simple zero-energy Internet of Things (IoT) devices and their communications. Let’s dive into the different energy-harvesting options.
Discover the four key areas on energy harvesting methods:
Vibration energy harvesters
This type of energy could come from measuring traffic on the roads, a washing machine or even an earthquake.
Thermal energy harvesters
This includes using the heat from your mug of coffee, warmth from a radiator or even heat from your own body.
Photovoltaic energy harvesters
This comes from converting light from the sun or electric light and is one of the most powerful ambient energy sources.
Radio frequency energy harvesters
Anything that comes with a radio frequency like Wi-Fi signals, Bluetooth, satellite communications and radio broadcast signals.
How do zero-energy devices work?
They provide connectivity for functions such as extreme low-cost sensors or actuators which have minimal maintenance and environmental requirements.
Each device must be powered by ambient energy. The voltage generated from, for example, a solar cell must be above a certain threshold to be useful. But the voltage generated is often not high enough, so improvement in this area is a key challenge. The accumulated ambient energy can be used in two types of devices:
- Passive zero-energy IoT devices with backscattering capabilities – these are battery-less devices, but they have no energy storage capabilities.
- Active zero-energy IoT devices with energy-harvesting capabilities – these devices have limited energy storage capabilities but do not require manual recharging or replacement. They also manage short periods of ambient energy unavailability. Another benefit of the active devices is that they have much better coverage when compared to passive devices
Leveling up zero-energy devices and network technology is unlocking a myriad of connected possibilities.
Where are we today?
A sustainable, battery-free world with wireless sensors has always been the goal, but thanks to key players and collaborations, incredible progress has already been made.
To fully unlock the potential of zero-energy devices, a holistic approach is needed. For the devices themselves, the energy-harvesting technologies - as well as the packaging and low-power integrated circuit design - will need to be advanced. In a collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ericsson is exploring new materials and ultra-low energy designs to harvest the radio signal itself.
One example of an energy harvesting company taking steps to advance technology is IoT systems developer Everactive. Co-founder David Wentzloff talks about the benefits of zero-energy devices: “We expect zero-energy devices will enable a power reduction of over 10,000 times compared to today's 4G IoT cellular products. And they will do this without a loss in functionality – mainly in terms of maximum downlink latency. Zero-energy radio hardware can be ‘on’ much more of the time, meaning better connectivity, lower latency, and simpler provisioning and deployment of devices.”
"We expect zero-energy devices will enable a power reduction of over 10,000 times compared to today's 4G IoT cellular products."
David Wentzloff, Everactive co-founder
To put things into perspective, Everactive has over 15,000 battery-less sensors deployed in factories and industrial facilities. Whereas previously developers of connected products have been forced to choose between device lifetime and data quality (as measured by frequency of measurement), Everactive has been able to lower the power requirements of the electronics, ensuring delivery of high-quality data using infinitely replenishable harvesting sources.
Previous 3GPP cellular technologies were not designed directly for zero-energy devices. With 6G on the horizon, standards will influence the design of the network to optimise energy efficiency and connectivity.
With billions of devices to manage, future network architecture must be designed to optimize energy efficiency and connectivity. Market conditions are now ripe for this 6G cellular zero-energy device technology to take off, which will lay the foundation for revolutionary IoT technology for 6G and beyond.
Artificial intelligence will further leverage the use of zero energy devices. With AI capabilities, it will be possible to draw complex, high accuracy conclusions from information collected from simple, low-cost sensors even though each individual sensor may have a relatively low performance on its own.
For example, by combining AI-interpreted information from a large number of low-resolution humidity sensors in a building, it may be possible to quickly and accurately find the location of water or roof leaks before they have created significant structural damages, without the need of sending someone into a potentially dangerous environment.
This is where Ericsson is making a difference.
Zero-energy can enable a 1000x increase in the number of connected devices we can deploy. As energy reduces, we can deploy more devices.
Here are some potential examples of how zero-energy devices can possibly transform a multitude of industries:
By connecting to patrolling unmanned aerial vehicles, zero-energy devices, in the form of tiny particles, could give warnings about potential wildfires and trigger preventative actions. When the technology is advanced enough, these biodegradable devices could fully break down after serving their purpose, leaving no trace.
Looking after your body
Smart clothing could automatically correct your posture or remind you to keep moving throughout the day – and could transform the healthcare industry. Embedded sensors in clothing fibers would send vital information to the zero-energy device that alerts the person to adjust or correct their posture.
Health and mind
Healthcare applications will span from monitoring and disease diagnoses through to wearables and implantable zero-energy devices or sensors. These sensors and devices would not need manual charging, as they could run solely from the energy produced by the human.
Farming and agriculture
Farmers could track the welfare of their livestock and crops using sensors that would connect to a base station. From there, the farmer could connect to it via mobile or tablet and receive vital information. This could be used for welfare purposes, for instance locating a cow that has strayed from the herd or is unwell and requires medical attention.
The future of warehousing
Through scanning information on stock delivery, an accurate and rapid automated inventory check could be performed without the need to manually change the inventory stock numbers. Ambient IoT devices will be able to communicate stock information to the 5G network within the warehouse. This information would be accessed through a computer or tablet that automatically updates stock levels.
Manufacturing and mining
ReVibe Energy has expertise in the field of vibration analysis. Its self-powered monitoring systems for vibrating screens are designed to collect data from machines or ‘screens’ that separate materials such as the different rocks and minerals collected when mining. Data is transmitted wirelessly to a cloud service where the user can access the data to find out about the status of the screen and act on any potential maintenance issues.
Vibrating machines don’t work well with cables or wires, as the intense vibrations can shake the cables loose. At the same time, the vibrations create an energy-harvesting opportunity which would otherwise be a wasted by-product.
Introducing zero-energy devices provides an “everlasting battery” for the sensors, as there is no battery within ReVibe Energy’s sensors, generating a huge amount of valuable data for the end user.
Buildings in the future
Buildings and offices could be monitored to automatically unearth upcoming issues, even conducting preventative maintenance, such as when cracks form in walls. A building’s lifespan will be extended, and residents or employees can reside safely and comfortably inside them by accessing data from the sensors buried within the bricks and cement.
Fredrik Vernersson, Head of Strategy, Research and Innovation at NCC explains: “When we produce buildings or infrastructure items, we’re keen to measure the performance of the process during the construction phase, as well as the performance of the objects once they are being used. Examples of the former are sensors for moisture and temperature that can be used to control the drying process for concrete. Examples of the latter are temperature and CO2 sensors, as well as sensors measuring the long-term behavior of bridges, roads, and tunnels e.g., resulting from load variations, without the need for destructive testing.”
With all this data, a digital replica can be created that adapts, responds and monitors in real time. This allows the user to manipulate and adjust the data in a virtual setting to highlight any implications or complications, without affecting the physical equivalent. These digital twins can help reduce waste and cost in the production process, whilst promoting efficiency.
By 2030, inventory management and industrial monitoring will be a key market for zero-energy devices. The use of automatic inventory stock checks will eliminate the need for manual checks and help prevent stock discrepancies, ultimately saving money and alleviating worker stress within the warehousing industry.
And that is only one example of many, as this technology finds uses we haven’t yet imagined.
Zero-energy devices will revolutionize human and machine connectivity. They will enable a more sustainable, intelligent future, and as the network evolves the proliferation of these devices will open the door to many more opportunities.
This will allow industries from the building sector to the agricultural industry to save time and money as well as focusing their efforts on taking technology development even further.
What areas of your life – or business – could be changed, improved and transformed in the future with zero-energy devices?
Andreas HöglundMaster Researcher, Ericsson Research, Ericsson AB
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