Enthusiasm for energy harvesting returns

18 June 2013

Raghu Das, CEO at IDTechEx comments on the apparent increase in interest in energy harvesting technology.

2008 to 2010 saw huge enthusiasm and interest in the development of small energy harvesters. The substantial research of previous years was turned into commercialisation efforts for several new forms of energy harvesting.

Added to the commonly used electromagnetic and photovoltaic devices were piezoelectric, thermoelectric and others. In addition, much needed new forms of energy storage became available in the form of solid state lithium thin film batteries with growing work on supercapacitors.

Many in IC design were chasing the third need – ultra low power devices – driven, in part, by consumers desiring longer lasting consumer electronics in between charge times.
Target markets for these new devices were initially identified decades ago, with often disparate uses in consumer devices including solar powered calculators, movement powered watches and bicycles dynamos. Although interest in these areas continued, for many, wireless sensors became the primary target market for energy harvesting.

The interest dip
From 2010 through 2012 the sector began to loose steam. These were not new technologies being designed from scratch with years of fundamental research being needed – products existed but sales were not materialising in any significant way.
There are many reasons for this which IDTechEx has explored, but mainly it is cost, slow adoption of wireless sensors (which exist in islands of application but not yet the large volumes envisaged), supply chain fragmentation, and the lack of complete solution providers.

What’s next?
From many inputs across industry IDTechEx now sees positive signs. These include recent fund raising or acquisitions (LORD MicroStrain, Nextreme Thermal Solutions are some examples). Broader and exciting product portfolios are emerging from technology developers such as Microgen and system integrators including ABB and Logimesh. The big silicon companies are back with renewed focus. Some things are different compared to a few years ago though – less research on piezoelectrics, but more activity on thermoelectrics. And perhaps most importantly, there is a pragmatism around emerging applications, which, at least for wireless sensors, will start off in small closed systems providing rapid paybacks for adopters – such as fast adoption of energy harvesting powered sensors to monitor train wheel axles with many more applications emerging.

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