Solution: Internet of Things without ecological disaster

Professors Paul Berger and Donald Lupo and doctoral student Suvi Lehtimäki are developing eco-friendly printed electronic components for the Internet of Things. Photo: TUT photo archive.

It is estimated that in the near future we will have billions of smart interconnected devices that collect, analyze and communicate data with each other. The next challenge is to make devices ecologically sustainable.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is offering us huge progress but could also turn into an ecological disaster. Billions of smart devices would also mean billions of batteries, power cords and silicon chips that would create a huge amount of e-waste.

“Each smart sensor should be energy autonomous. No wires or plugs are needed!”

To avoid this, researchers at Tampere University of Technology are working on making our interconnected future eco-friendly. Professors Paul Berger and Donald Lupo do not believe that batteries, which contain problematic materials and are required by law to be recycled, are an environmentally acceptable solution for the IoT.

Instead, they are developing printed, thin and flexible smart objects that communicate wirelessly without any external source of energy.

1) Which energy challenge will the printed smart objects for the Internet of Things solve, TUT professors Paul Berger and Donald Lupo?

“Printed smart objects will address sustainability and energy efficiency on two levels, both indirectly and directly. To start with the indirect influence, one of the things that smart objects everywhere can do is measure and control the environment, for example improving the level of energy efficiency in buildings or improving inventory control in smart kitchens or supermarkets. However, we need to make sure that we don’t trade one environmental gain against another loss, and we have to power these smart sensors somehow. We believe that each node should be energy autonomous, both energy thrifty and scavenging energy from its local environment and storing for local use. No wires or plugs are needed!

These smart objects will have to run on energy they can harvest from the environment, for example from radio waves, light, motion or temperature gradients. Printed electronics is a way to enable this, and this is part of our research. In addition, these objects will need interim energy storage, but without the recycling problems of batteries. We believe that our approach of non-toxic printed supercapacitors is the most promising solution for interim energy storage.”

2) How does the innovation support sustainable development?

“Many research groups are focusing on “macro energy”: sustainable means of energy production at the grid level, such as solar, wind, geothermal energy etc. This work is extremely important. However, we are looking at another area of sustainability that seems less “sexy” at first but is also critical. We are focusing on “micro-energy” that is unplugged from the grid entirely. The results of our work will allow the ubiquitous electronics of the future, which seems to be coming in any case, to be manufactured and used in a sustainable way by enabling energy autonomy without the use of toxic materials and by enabling less resource-intensive ways to manufacture electronics.”

“We are among the earliest groups to work on integrating printed harvesting and non-toxic storage into small sensor-devices.”

3) How will your solution improve peoples’ quality of life?

“Smart objects everywhere can contribute to our well-being in a multitude of ways. The distributed sensors can control our living environment, warn us of structural problems before they are visible and enable home-based medical diagnostics, point-of-use medical care and assisted living and other end-of-life issues. We hope that they can even eventually free us from our current addictions to smart phones so that we can take in the world around us again. Printed electronics will be important in realizing this, not only because of the potential for sustainable energy autonomy and production, but also because printed electronics can be thin, lightweight, flexible, and stretchable, and therefore able to be integrated into all kinds of everyday objects. Further, its future production capability leveraging roll-to-roll (R2R) printing offers scale up and throughput that would exceed the world’s silicon CMOS production capability, thus enabling the printing of trillions of IoT objects.”

4) How, in your view, will the innovation have developed in ten years’ time?

“We hope that within 10 years’ time printed energy harvesting and storage will be a standard solution for distributed electronics/Internet of Things, with vastly reduced need for button batteries. Our work on post-silicon printed electronics is more long-term, but we hope to see first simple circuits in products by then.”

5) Have similar solutions been developed or tested elsewhere in the world?

“Light harvesting using printed electronics, or its close cousins, has been explored for some time. There are groups at University of California-Berkeley working in integration of solar cells and thin film batteries, and you can even buy a wireless keyboard from Logitech that has a dye solar cell [a so called “Grätzel cell” after Michael Grätzel who won the 2010 Millennium Technology Prize for this invention] in it for power. There has also been work on integration of RF harvesting into RFID devices, both commercially and at institutions like Georgia Tech. We seem to be among the earliest groups to work on integrating printed harvesting and non-toxic storage into small sensor-type devices. And germinating from Berger’s USA labs at Ohio State University, his seminal work on printable tunnel diodes is leading a new potential pathway for energy thrifty printed electronics.”

Text: Laura Manas

Find all the stories in the series under the category “Theme: Energy”.