Energy, everywhere: What’s next for energy harvesting and portable power?
Rapid industrialisation, development of infrastructure and the growing use of electronics is happening quickly around the globe. As a result, managing energy supplies is becoming an increasingly urgent problem, calling for a more sustainable society.
The plastic electronics market has been developing energy harvesting technologies as a part of this sustainable vision. Devices such as dye-sensitised and organic solar cells are being optimised to harvest supplementary power, and are now being adapted for usage in electronics, buildings, clothing and vehicles. These technologies are uniquely placed to serve increasing demands for portable, convenient and on-demand power across many devices. Devices created on plastic can deliver high degrees of bendability and forego the use of brittle elements like glass – making for robust, lightweight, and easy-to-integrate power sources. In societies dominated by portable and power-hungry electronics, these features offer a means of sustaining battery life on the move.
Similarly, smart textiles with piezoelectric functionality can help to power the range of portable electronics many consumers now carry in their day to day lives, such as smartphones, mp3 players, tablets, e-readers and laptops.
In addition, there is now an opportunity to produce cheap electronics with simple, roll-to-roll processes, which could make it feasible to use sensors in more applications than is currently affordable. These technologies can be used to manage energy usage – dimming or switching lights depending on how many people there are in a room, managing air conditioning, and much more.
This new range of technologies suitable for energy harvesting concepts makes the vision of smart, sustainable buildings and products possible. For example, printed sensors monitoring and automating the use of energy, low-cost solar cells harvesting energy to power many electronic devices, and ultimately reducing the amount of energy taken from the grid.
Such developments could also help avoid the increasing ubiquity of electronics – from smartphones to sensors – causing strain on the environment. As electronics become commonplace in the smart homes and offices of the future, more energy will be used by buildings. Some electronics will actually improve the sustainability of buildings – for instance, controlling lighting; but what about the sensors used to achieve this? Taking these off-grid with their own cheap, simple power source – for instance, an integrated solar cell harvesting indoor light – would further the sustainability of a smart building.
The current state of the industry
There are many first generation products coming to market which aim to prove the need for energy harvesting technologies, and a number of announcements in recent years have proven that these technologies are now commercially viable. Although, there have been examples in the past where the integration of printed or organic electronic energy harvesting devices have failed to achieve long-term financial success. For example, in October 2009 G24 Innovations (G24i) announced a deal to supply its dye solar cells (DSCs) to Mascotte Industrial Associates in Hong Kong for bags and carry cases with integrated solar energy harvesting technology. While the Energy Sun Bags did sell well, G24i had intended for these products to demonstrate the potential for more pervasive and permanent energy harvesting. The company, now called G24i Power after a buyout from administration, is looking to develop deals such as iPad accessories with partner Logitech, among other applications.
However, bigger opportunities do exist for companies able to showcase the versatility and reliability of energy harvesting components. Getting companies to the level where they will compare an energy harvesting device with a conventional battery rather than little more than a novel, albeit innovative, concept is achievable by persuading equipment manufacturers and appealing to consumers.
Recently, piezoelectrics have come to the fore of the energy harvesting market. This is partly due to the fact that a team from the Institute of Material Research and Innovation has created a hybrid device, with piezoelectrics applied to a PV wire, creating a product that is able to work with devices creating energy from rain and wind, as well as light.
Without the full range of base components, it would be very challenging to use energy harvesting components in the real world. Energy harvesting technology will come forward as an essential area for charging and powering items on the move as the mobile electronics market develops further. However until efficiency is increased, there will always be a need for a plug point. With the technology behind the harvesting now in a state of high development, it will not be long before a mobile device is truly mobile.
Research compiled by Smithers Apex, www.smithersapex.com.
If you would like to know more about the plastic electronics industry, check out our market report, Unmet Needs in Plastic Electronics – Market and Technology Forecasts to 2018.