I recently sat down with Yogesh Ramadass, a design engineer with Texas Instruments. He’s as much of an expert on the subject of energy harvesting as anyone I know, so I asked him some pertinent questions on the subject.
What’s the real definition of energy harvesting?
In the broadest sense, any situation where one uses freely available energy from the ambient to get useful work done should be classified as energy harvesting. That raises the question, doesn’t most of the useful energy on earth come from the sun? And the answer would be yes, the earth is one big energy harvester, harvesting the available heat and light energy from the sun. Plants and animals on the earth harvest the sun’s energy for everyday living.
For a more specific definition of energy harvesting as it applies to electronics, energy harvesting refers to the conversion of ambient energy available in the form of heat, light, wind, and mechanical energy into useful electrical energy to power electrical and electronic items. This ranges from the megawatts of power harvested using big wind, tidal, and solar farms to the relatively tiny microwatts and milliwatts of power harvested by small solar cells, thermal harvesters on vents, and vibration harvesters on machines.
What can we do today with energy harvesting, specifically in the very low power space?
Today, we have energy harvesting systems that can reliably harvest from tens of microwatts to a few milliwatts of power, depending on the ambient surroundings. For example, small solar-cell-powered systems in indoor surroundings can typically harvest a few tens of microwatts. Taken outdoors, that same system can increase its power capability to a few milliwatts. With this amount of power, we can run small temperature, humidity, and chemical sensors, which can relay vital information to a central hub. With the ability to be self-powered, the shackles of a fixed energy source like a battery can be removed, paving the way for widespread adoption.
What can we expect energy harvesting to look like in the next five years?
In the next five years, the energy harvester and the storage technologies required in these systems will be more mature. The electronics within these systems will also be pushing new lower power regimes, making it more viable to use energy harvesting to replace batteries, both from technology and cost perspectives. When this happens, we will see harvesting devices all around us, in home-automation devices, wearable devices monitoring our health, industrial sensors, and many others.
@fdos: Good point mate. I think we do need to invest more on nature. By doing that in return we will benefit a lot out of it. Solar is one of them and there are many more which we still might not have even identified
Definitely storage of all of this energy is the next frontier, AnandY. There are some small scale and localized ways to do it with some of these devices, but large-scale is still yet to be tackled. But experts are working on it.
@Debera: Well investing on solar panels is good because its something which we can use for the future. Power is something which is very costly so going ahead and investing on something like this is vital
Andy yes solar panels are not that costly what is coostly is the batteries of the panel plus the maintanance . If we say that solar panels is not a huge investment it wont be correct because investing in batteries or maintanace is also the same thing only
@ Daniyal_Ali, I completely agree with you. We have harnessed multiple sources of energy but we are yet to deal with storage in a befitting manner. Energy storage is the main reason behind high cost of many systems. If we take solar for example, bulk of investment is still needed for batteries. Solar panels on the other hand are not that costly.
@ Elizabeth M, you are right there is a lot of research and information available on it. But that often is the problem that a lot of information confuses the reader and expert opinion is the ultimate credible source of information. It is good to know the expert opinion about energy harvesting and his predictions about the development of this technology.
Debera, your comment is interesting to me. When you say "England," do you mean in London? I actually have written about floor-tile technology that was used during the Olympics in London, and wondered if this is what you were referencing or if there is other energy-harvesting technology being used on footpaths.
Here is a story I wrote for your reference: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=262295
I am just curious if there is another company or some other technology being used of which I am not aware. Thanks!
I have read somewhere that in some club of America tha dance floor has the mechanism of harvesting energy as the people places preasure on the floor while dancing . We can say that this technology is on its boom and definitely in future it will be very usefull.
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