Energy Harvesting Technologies Breaking Through

-August 10, 2007

As the enthusiastic response to the recent nanoPower Forum (nPF) attests, the opportunities for energy harvesting are starting to break out of emerging status and into the mainstream. A brief review of the industry, research and commercial activity reported at nPF shows just some of the technologies making inroads:

The ZigBee® Alliance, a global system of companies creating wireless solutions for use in energy, residential, commercial and industrial applications, announced that its members are joining forces and leveraging their wireless and utility expertise to fight the predicted global energy crisis. Some of the world’s leading energy companies, ranging from utilities to suppliers, have recently joined the Alliance and are relying on ZigBee solutions.

Utilities such as CenterPoint Energy, Southern California Edison and Sempra Utilities are working alongside other member companies such as Cellnet, Eaton, Itron, Phillips, Schneider Electric, Siemens, Comverge, Control4, DCSI, Golden Power, Johnson Controls, Legrand, Nivis, Nuri Telecom, Sensus Metering, Silver Spring Networks, Site Controls, Talon Communications, Trilliant Networks, Tritech Technology and Viconics to use existing low-cost and easily installable ZigBee products and services.

The ZigBee Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) Profile will take advantage of other ZigBee application profiles for Home and Commercial building automation products, filling a critical gap and integrating Home Area Networks (HAN), or in-premise networks, to smart energy grids. In the U.S. alone, progressive utility companies and state legislatures are expected to deploy new smart meters in approximately 30 million homes over the next few years.

Announcements from the research community affiliated with Georgia Institute of Technology focus on the continuing developments in the field of energy harvesting. A nanogenerator that provides continuous power by harvesting energy from the environment has been unveiled, as have three-dimensional solar cells that capture nearly all of the light that they come into contact with.

Dr. Zhong Lin Wang, Regents’ Professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, reported that researchers have demonstrated a prototype nanometer-scale generator that produces continuous direct-current electricity by harvesting mechanical energy from such environmental sources as ultrasonic waves, mechanical vibration or blood flow.

The Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) said that it has developed three-dimensional (3D) solar cells that could boost the efficiency of photovoltaic (PV) systems while reducing their size, weight and mechanical complexity. The new 3D solar cells capture photons from sunlight using an array of miniature “tower” structures that resemble high-rise buildings in a city street grid. The cells could find near-term applications for powering spacecraft, and by enabling efficiency improvements in PV coating materials, could also change the way solar cells are designed for a broad range of applications.

On the commercial front, Advanced Linear Devices Inc. announced what it claims are the industry’s first energy harvesting modules designed to provide alternative power sources to Bluetooth and other wireless circuits operating in the 3-5V range for intermittent duty cycle operations.

The ALD EH301 EPAD® Energy Harvesting Modules™ are designed specifically to capture, accumulate and store power from a variety of energy harvesting sources and supply it to wireless sensor networks operating in compliance with the Bluetooth specification. The modules are designed to make energy harvesting a reliable and long-lasting source of power and to help unshackle many applications from the constraints of battery or ac power sources. n

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