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Greener energy is needed for the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) connects and facilitates data exchange among a multitude of smart objects of various dimensions and shapes over the internet and other sensing and communications networks. Such smart objects include self-driving cars equipped with sensors to detect road obstacles, remote-controlled home security systems, and temperature-controlled factory equipment. 

By the next decade, scientists estimate that this burgeoning hypernetwork may reach trillions of devices and have a major impact on both daily life and various industries. However, current approaches to power sensor nodes rely mostly on battery technology, which is expensive and environmentally harmful. Moreover, the global production of lithium for battery materials may fail to keep up with the increasing energy demand from the nearly exponential rise in the number of sensors.

Now, a team of scientists from the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Saudi Arabia (KAUST) has argued that emerging forms of thin-film device technologies relying on alternative semiconductor materials – such as printable organics, metal oxides, or nanocarbon allotropes – could lead to a more economically and environmentally sustainable IoT.

By drawing energy from the environment using so-called energy harvesters, such as photovoltaic cells and radio-frequency (RF) energy harvesters, wirelessly powered sensor nodes could help achieve a more sustainable IoT. Moreover, the emergence of large-area electronics as a better alternative to conventional silicon-based technologies is also an important step forward in this process. Since they can be produced at low temperatures and on biodegradable substrates like paper, such devices are more ecofriendly than their silicon-based counterparts.

Over the past years, the KAUST researchers have developed a variety of RF electronic components, such as metal-oxide and organic polymer-based semiconductor devices known as Schottky diodes. “These devices are crucial components in wireless energy harvesters and ultimately dictate the performance and cost of the sensor nodes,” said study co-author Kalaivanan Loganathan.

Another major contribution from the research team includes scalable methods for manufacturing RF diodes to harvest energy reaching the 5G/6G frequency range. “Such technologies provide the needed building blocks toward a more sustainable way to power the billions of sensor nodes in the near future,” concluded corresponding author Professor Thomas Anthopoulos.

The study is published in the journal Nature Electronics.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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