If new wearables are to enjoy maximum commercial development, technology companies have to start thinking of new ways to power wearable devices. This includes harvesting energy from body heat and movement – at least that's the message heard by attendees at the recent Hot Chips conference and exhibition in Cupertino, California. Texas Instruments’ lead design engineer Yogesh Ramadass discussed the push toward new energy sources at length.
Despite a lot of excitement about the future of wearables, the technology has already run into a significant problem early on: we do not have the capability of producing batteries that are both extremely small and capable of providing the power needs of wearables over the long term. The solution proposed by Ramadass solves the problem by taking the battery out of the equation.
For now, the solution only applies to low-power wearables consuming energy measured in microwatts rather than milliwatts. For example, a wearable device that collects health-related data and transmits it to a GP’s office without any user interaction would consume microwatts of energy. Things like smart phones and wristwatches use milliwatts of energy to power their displays and touch screens.
The technology used to harvest ambient energy for powering electronics is still fairly new but Ramadass told the assembled Hot Chips crowd that research and development have come far enough to make it “convenient to replace the battery … with ambient energy” in some cases.
How does it work? These new wearable devices are able to absorb energy from the surrounding environment. For example, body heat can be absorbed and converted to electricity whenever a device is being worn. Movement is another good source, using the friction of kinetic energy to generate electricity. Other ambient sources including sunlight, air movement and even sound waves are being considered as possibilities.
Ambient Energy and the Internet of Things
Experts are already excited about the possibility of harvesting ambient energy in relation to the rapidly expanding Internet of things. In the future, there will be literally billions of devices connected via Internet communications spanning the globe. Everything from kitchen appliances to computers to wearable devices will all be talking back and forth to provide more efficiency and better management. Developing ambient energy sources to power some of these devices could hasten further Internet of things development.
Technology companies are already looking for ways to integrate wearables with other forms of technology for both consumer and industrial applications. For example, a device worn by a factory worker could collect data that could then be instantly sent to machines on the production floor. Those machines could then modify their own behaviours to maximise efficiency in relation to how the worker is performing. In order to make something like this possible though, wearable devices must be capable of long-term operation without the possibility of power failure.
It is interesting how consumer electronics are helping to direct the development of new power technologies. This latest example just shows that there is innovation where demand exists.