A greener Internet of Things without connected cables

Newswise — Emerging forms of thin-film device technologies that rely on alternative semiconductor materials such as printable organics, nanocarbon allotropes and metal oxides could contribute to a more economically and environmentally sustainable Internet of Things (IoT), an international team led by KAUST suggests.

IoT will have a major impact on everyday life and many industries. It connects and facilitates the exchange of data between a multitude of intelligent objects of all shapes and sizes—such as remote-controlled home security systems, self-driving cars equipped with sensors that detect obstacles on the road, and temperature-controlled factory equipment—over the Internet and other sensing and communication networks.

This fast-growing hypernetwork is expected to reach trillions of devices in the next decade, increasing the number of sensor nodes deployed on its platforms.

Current approaches used to power sensor nodes rely on battery technology, but batteries require regular replacement, which is costly and environmentally damaging over time. The current global production of lithium for battery materials may also not keep pace with the increasing demand for energy from the growing number of sensors.

Wirelessly powered sensor nodes could help achieve a sustainable Internet of Things by harvesting energy from the environment using so-called energy harvesters such as photovoltaic cells and radio frequency (RF) energy harvesters, among other technologies. Large-scale electronics could be key to enabling these energy sources.

KAUST graduate students Kalaivanan Loganathan with Thomas Anthopoulos and collaborators evaluated the viability of various large-scale electronic technologies and their potential to deliver environmentally friendly, wirelessly powered IoT sensors.

Large-area electronics have recently emerged as an attractive alternative to conventional silicon-based technologies due to significant advances in solution-based processing that make it easier to print devices and circuits on flexible large-area substrates. They can be produced at low temperatures and on biodegradable substrates such as paper, making them more environmentally friendly than their silicon-based counterparts.

Over the years, Anthopoulos’ team has developed a variety of RF electronic components, including semiconductor devices based on metal oxides and organic polymers known as Schottky diodes. “These devices are key components of wireless energy harvesters and ultimately determine the performance and cost of sensor nodes,” says Loganathan.

Key contributions of the KAUST team include scalable RF diode fabrication methods for power harvesting reaching the 5G/6G frequency range. “Such technologies provide the necessary building blocks for a more sustainable way of powering billions of sensor nodes in the near future,” says Anthopoulos.

The team is investigating the monolithic integration of these low-power devices with antenna and sensors to show their true potential, Loganathan adds.

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