NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, England – I’m back from the IEEE Sensors Conference, which took place in sunny Hawaii.
First, I should probably say that I went to the conference to present my work on high temperature vibration energy harvesting, with the particular aim to show how it can fit into the sensors field. As energy harvesting is a relatively new field, it is yet to have its own dedicated conference. For now the prestigious IEEE Sensors is an ideal place to present energy harvesting work and how developments impact on the sensors area.
I was a poster presenter in the opening session and had a steady stream of people questioning me for almost the whole two hours. The great thing about presenting a poster is that people can stay and chat as long as they like. There isn’t the time pressure that comes with Q&A after an oral presentation. As a result I have made some great contacts, and already my research is feeling the benefit.
Although energy harvesting is now very much out of the initial hype phase, there is still a real interest in the topic from people across a wide range of disciplines. People want to use energy harvesting to reduce the need for batteries, to improve deployability in places where batteries are unsuitable, or to demonstrate that they are taking green, sustainable steps in their research.
Of these three motivations, the most popular is by far the second one. Energy harvesting will not always be suitable, but where it stands to make the most impact is in places where batteries cannot or should not be used. This can range from, in my case, use in high temperature environments, to biomedical implants or sealed chambers which are never opened again after manufacture.
The IEEE Sensors conference is huge and covers a wide range of topics, from these it was possible to gain a sense of which areas are going to start playing a bigger role in the future. The three which stood out this year were graphene devices, degradable electronics and the development of smart objects.
Although these topics did not have a huge number of presentations, those that did laid out convincing, and clear reasons why they will grow in significance. Graphene is very much in vogue at the moment, with its recent Nobel prize, an explosion of research interest and amazing potential it is easy to see why - heck, even the guy sat behind me in my office is working with graphene!
The presentations about using graphene as a sensor were very interesting and show how its unique properties lend itself well to becoming a sensing material. However, there are engineering challenges to overcome. I can vouch for the fact that graphene is a nightmare to wire bond to.
Technologies such as inkjet-printed electronics have allowed for the development of paper circuit boards which are much cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than conventional methods. A presentation by A. Traille, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, highlighted how the technology has now developed sufficiently to handle gigahertz signals and even printed solar cells, all on a substrate that will degrade in 20 years. As we develop new sensing systems and start to deploy large-scale wireless sensor networks we will need to consider the impact that this has on the environment. Deploying billions of sensors that must eventually be replaced and go to landfill makes no sense. It has to start being a goal of make most electronics so that it can degrade.naturally to benign residual materials.
Building on from the need for degradable electronics is one of the root causes of the need for smart objects. The conference threw up the example of detecting bank note forgery through an embedded passive RFID tag. This RFID tag can be scanned with an RF device to reveal signature represented as a series of resonant peaks. Such a note would be very hard to forge and acts as a great indicator for where smart objects will take us.
Those of you who attended this year's conference will know that it was an excellent event and it is a particularly good conference for identifying where research can cross over into the commercial world and help solve real problems. It will be interesting to see how long it takes before some of the more developed ideas are commercialized by a spin out company or an enterprising PhD student involved in the research!
I would like to make a special mention of the opening keynote speech. It was held after the welcome reception around the stunning hotel pool at 8pm. To keep the interest of 600 delegates - many of whom were jet lagged and wanted nothing more than to slope off to bed - needed something a special. This came in the form of a 45 minute presentation entitled “Cyborg beetles: radio-controlled flight of insects” which contained numerous videos and a fascinating walk though of a very unusual area of research. I recommend looking into this work if you are interested in the more novel applications of electronics (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCK-mNqhx44).