Printing is Key to Battery-Free IoT Sensors

Ally Winning, European Editor, PSD



Ally Winning, European Editor, PSD

­The Internet of Things has already shown it can enhance our home and work lives in many ways even though we are only at the beginning of its implementation. Being able to measure multiple different metrics about our bodies, our equipment or our environment and then use that data to calculate optimal outcomes over both the long and short terms keeps us at the peak of health and fitness, ensures that machinery runs at maximum efficiency, or provides multiple other benefits. However, to be able to produce the data requires a huge number of sensors that often have to be situated in difficult to reach locations, be small enough to not affect the form or function of the device in which it is installed and have to have a source of power.

Using printing to produce as many sensors as possible would cut costs, and also be more environmentally friendly. If energy harvesting could be used, it would also be a huge benefit, cutting out the need for batteries, reducing the size of the sensor circuit, and reducing the use of toxic chemicals further, especially if the circuits to harvest energy for the sensors was part of the sensor design. Combining those two functions and producing printed sensor circuits that generated their own energy would be the ideal solution for a cheaper and greener IoT. Simon Fraser University professor Vincenzo Pecunia is working towards that goal and believes that energy harvesting, printed sensors will be a viable product in the relatively near future.

Pecunia leads a multinational team of experts in various areas of printable electronics, and through his work has identified key priorities and promising avenues for printable electronics that will enable self-powered, smart sensors. He explains by saying, “Conventional semiconductor technologies require complex, energy-intensity, and expensive processing, but printable semiconductors can deliver electronics with a much lower carbon footprint and cost, since they can be processed by printing or coating, which require much lower energy and materials consumption. The printable electronics would have to be designed with as small a material set as possible, which would make the fabrication process easier, reduce costs and enabling a straightforward scale-up,”

Pecunia claims that the semiconductor technologies being developed by his group could potentially allow the seamless integration of electronics, sensors, and energy harvesters at the touch of a ‘print’ button. These sensors would be fabricated at single production sites, further reducing carbon footprint, supply chain issues and energetic costs. Through his work, he has already achieved breakthroughs towards self-powered printable smart sensors, demonstrating printed electronics with low power dissipation and printable devices powered by ambient light via tiny printable solar cells.

There are forecast to be many billions of IoT sensors installed in the coming years, it makes perfect sense to make them as green as possible. Self-powered sensors also makes a lot of sense. Let’s hope Pecunia’s work pays dividends.