The power struggle for the internet of things

The latest episode of For Tech’s Sake explores the future of small-scale energy with Dr Valeria Nico, who is finding sustainable ways to power small devices.

January can be a good time for a big clear-out. Your wardrobe, your medicine cupboard, your ‘junk drawer’ – including all those dead batteries rattling around in it.

We hear a lot of talk about energy these days, and the need to shift to more circular and renewable forms of power on the grand scale, for national grids. But we probably don’t think too much about small-scale power and the changes that need to be made there too.

And if you want smart tech, you need to get smart about energy. At least, that’s according to Dr Valeria Nico, a researcher based in the Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick.

“It is estimated that by 2025 there will be 20bn sensors connected to the internet,” she said. “This is a huge number if we consider that all of the sensors are mainly battery powered.”

Nico discussed the challenge of powering this internet of things on the latest episode of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network.

All these battery-powered electronic devices for our smart homes, smart cities and smart manufacturing don’t just put a strain on energy use. They can also lead to mountains of e-waste.

“If we consider just Ireland, it’s a small enough country, but … in 2021 there were 1,085 tonnes of small batteries that were collected for recycling – and not all the batteries are collected,” said Nico. “That’s just the ones being disposed of responsibly.”

WEEE Ireland estimates that it collected 46pc of portable batteries for recycling in 2021, so you can more than double that figure to get a real measure of how much battery power we run through in a year. And unrecycled batteries are not only bad for the environment but also incredibly wasteful as most of their components can be recovered and reused.

Nico, however, is working to provide small devices with an alternative, sustainable and renewable source of power – batteries not included. Her main research interest is vibrational energy harvesting, converting ambient vibrations (such as from factory machinery) into electrical energy to power small electronic devices such as wireless sensors.

This technology has already been proven to work with vibrational energy harvesters already on the market from companies such as Kinergizer

“I think the challenge is convincing the user that it’s possible, and convincing the user to change a bit,” said Nico. “Because you can’t collect data all the time. You have to collect data when you have the energy, and be smarter with what you do when you have energy.”

This goes against the always-on culture we are building. But to continue thinking this way is incompatible with a sustainable energy future.

For more on battery tech and the future of power, check out episode 7 of For Tech’s Sake: Max Power.

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