Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology have discovered a way to capture and harness energy transmitted by such sources as radio and television transmitters, cell phone networks and satellite communications systems. By scavenging this ambient energy from the air around us, the technique could provide a new way to power networks of wireless sensors, microprocessors and communications chips.
"There is a large amount of electromagnetic energy all around us, but nobody has been able to tap into it," said Manos Tentzeris, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering who is leading the research. "We are using an ultra-wideband antenna that lets us exploit a variety of signals in different frequency ranges, giving us greatly increased power-gathering capability."
Tentzeris and his team are using inkjet printers to combine sensors, antennas and energy scavenging capabilities on paper or flexible polymers. The resulting self-powered wireless sensors could be used for chemical, biological, heat and stress sensing for defense and industry; radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging for manufacturing and shipping, and monitoring tasks in many fields including communications and power usage.
Communications devices transmit energy in many different frequency ranges, or bands. The team's scavenging devices can capture this energy, convert it from AC to DC, and then store it in capacitors and batteries. The scavenging technology can take advantage presently of frequencies from FM radio to radar, a range spanning 100MHz to 15GHz or higher. Scavenging experiments using TV bands have already yielded power amounting to hundreds of microwatts, and multi-band systems are expected to generate one milliwatt or more. That amount of power is enough to operate many small electronic devices, including a variety of sensors and microprocessors.
Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering professor Manos Tentzeris holds a sensor (left) and an ultra-broadband spiral antenna for wearable energy-scavenging applications. Both were printed on paper using inkjet technology. Georgia Tech Photo: Gary Meek
By combining energy scavenging technology with supercapacitors and cycled operation, the Georgia Tech team expects to power devices requiring above 50 milliwatts. In this approach, energy builds up in a battery-like supercapacitor and is utilized when the required power level is reached. The researchers have already successfully operated a temperature sensor using electromagnetic energy captured from a television station that was half a kilometer distant. They are preparing another demonstration in which a microprocessor-based microcontroller would be activated simply by holding it in the air.
Exploiting a range of electromagnetic bands increases the dependability of energy scavenging devices, explained Tentzeris, who is also a faculty researcher in the Georgia Electronic Design Center at Georgia Tech. If one frequency range fades temporarily due to usage variations, the system can still exploit other frequencies. The scavenging device could be used by itself or in tandem with other generating technologies. For example, scavenged energy could assist a solar element to charge a battery during the day. At night, when solar cells don't provide power, scavenged energy would continue to increase the battery charge or would prevent discharging.
Using ambient electromagnetic energy could also provide a form of system backup. If a battery or a solar-collector/battery package failed completely, scavenged energy could allow the system to transmit a wireless distress signal while also potentially maintaining critical functionalities.To print electrical components and circuits, the Georgia Tech researchers use a standard materials inkjet printer. However, they add what Tentzeris calls "a unique in house recipe" containing silver nanoparticles and/or other nanoparticles in an emulsion. This approach enables the team to print not only RF components and circuits, but also novel sensing devices based on such nanomaterials as carbon nanotubes.
This article originally appeared on EE Times Europe.