Automotive Electronics

Energy-Harvesting-Powered Systems to Reach Tipping Point in 2013

The announcement last month by the ZigBee Alliance of “Green Power” as an optional feature for ZigBee PRO is one of the most-striking indications that battery-less, wireless systems are poised for a surge in growth. Until the ZigBee announcement, the options for deploying energy harvesting (EH) powered controls and sensors were limited, and so was the market potential of those devices. Prior to the ZigBee announcement, there were fewer than 50 companies seriously involved in the market for EH-powered devices. As a result of the news from ZigBee, today there are hundreds of companies involved in this area.

In October of last year, ZigBee celebrated its first decade of successes, most notably in enabling the growing machine-to- machine (M2M) and Internet of Things (IoT) trends and providing utilities and energy service providers with new consumer energy management and efficiency capabilities. Hundreds of manufacturers have shipped hundreds of millions of ZigBee products for a variety of energy management, commercial and consumer applications, hence the importance of the ZigBee Green Power announcement in enabling the rapid-growth of EH-powered systems.

While the ZigBee announcement was a major step, it was only one of several important developments in the area of EH-power that have occurred recently. Another important standard announced in 2012 was ISO/IEC 14543-3-10 — for wireless applications with ultra-low power consumption. This standard was ratified by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and was claimed to be the first and only wireless standard that is also optimized for energy harvesting solutions. It lays the foundation for fully-interoperable, open wireless technology comparable to standards such as Bluetooth and WiFi. The new standard is geared to wireless sensors and wireless sensor networks with ultra-low power consumption.

The changing and expanding standards landscape is only one of the significant developments that will drive EH products into the mainstream in 2013. A convergence of technologies will also be a major driver in the growth of this market. The power consumption needs of control and sensor systems is falling with each successive generation of semiconductor devices and the energy-delivery capabilities of energy harvesting systems is rising with successive generations. At the same time, the cost of wired systems continues to rise as basic materials such as copper wiring and installation costs (labor) continue to rise. Copper is being replaced with silicon. As a result, the energy harvesting market is well positioned for accelerated growth starting in 2013 and continuing over the next several years.

In addition, while energy harvesting is often described as a “battery-less” technology, in reality, in many applications energy harvesting will be used to run devices when they can, but then need to store excess energy for later use. Both primary and especially rechargeable batteries are seen as a concurrent and critical market with energy harvesting solutions.

At the end of last October, Cymbet Corporation announced that it is now shipping EnerChip™ Smart Solid State Batteries from their second high-volume fabrication facility built in partnership with X-FAB Texas Inc. Shipping EnerChips from this production facility significantly increases Cymbet’s manufacturing capacity to supply the growing global demand for Cymbet’s solid-state batteries. In anticipation of identified high-volume customer requirements, additional floor space has been set aside for future expansion of the EnerChip production lines.

As if to highlight these trends, just last week Texas Instruments Incorporated (TI) introduced the industry’s lowest-power dc-dc step-down converter, which increases the amount of harvested energy an end application can use as much as 70 percent over alternative devices. This is the latest in a string of energy-harvesting-related product announcements from TI. The ultra-low power circuit enables battery-free power to applications, such as wireless sensor networks, monitoring systems, smoke detectors, wearable medical devices and mobile accessories.

TI’s TPS62736 dc-dc converter mobile accessories and wireless sensors to manage microwatts generated from solar, thermoelectric, magnetic and vibration energy. It delivers high power conversion efficiency from 10 uA to 50 mA output currents, and consumes only 350 nA of active current and 20 nA during standby. The converter achieves greater than 90-percent efficiency across output currents higher than 15 uA. The TPS62736 regulator steps down the voltage from a power source, such as a thin-film or regular battery or a super capacitor and features a programmable output voltage.

Last month, in direct support of the ZigBee Green Power announcement, GreenPeak Technologies announced its new GP410 chip offering the new PRO Green Power feature for low-cost energy harvesting and ultra-long battery life ZigBee applications for the Smart Home. The GP410 IEEE 802.15.4 ZigBee PRO Green Power controller is a fully integrated system-on-chip solution for power harvesting end nodes for light switches, smart home devices, or for applications designed to run on a single battery for many years. The Green Power feature gives battery-free, energy-harvesting devices the ability to join any Green Power enabled ZigBee PRO 2012 network.

These are only a few examples of the growing number of companies announcing devices intended to support EH-powered controls and sensors. The demand is there. Recent standards announcements from ZigBee and the IEC provide the enabling framework. This year will be a “break-out” year for battery-less, wireless systems.

Energy harvesting and related M2M and IoT technologies will be major topics at the first-annual Darnell’s Energy Summit to be hosted in Dallas, Texas, September 9-13, 2013.

Darnell's Energy Summit
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