iot smart city

Self-powered, printable smart sensors could mean cheaper, greener Internet of Things

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Creating smart sensors to embed in our everyday objects and environments for the Internet of Things (IoT) could improve daily life, but would require trillions of such small devices.

Powering the increasing number of sensor nodes used in the IoT creates a technological challenge. The economic and sustainability issues of battery-powered devices mean that wirelessly powered operation – combined with environmentally friendly circuit technologies – will be needed.

Large-area electronics – which can be based on organic semiconductors, amorphous metal oxide semiconductors, semiconducting carbon nanotubes and two-dimensional semiconductors – could provide a solution.

Simon Fraser University (SFU) professor Vincenzo Pecunia believes that emerging alternative semiconductors that are printable, low-cost and eco-friendly could lead the way to a cheaper and more sustainable IoT.

Leading a multinational team of experts in various areas of printable electronics from SFU's campus in Canada, Pecunia has identified key priorities and promising avenues for printable electronics to enable self-powered, eco-friendly smart sensors.

“Equipping everyday objects and environments with intelligence via smart sensors would allow us to make more informed decisions as we go about in our daily lives,” said Pecunia. “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.”

Pecunia says making printable electronics that can work using energy harvested from the environment – from ambient light or ubiquitous radio-frequency signals, for example – could be the answer.

“Our analysis reveals that a key priority is to realise printable electronics with as small a material set as possible to streamline their fabrication process, thus ensuring the straightforward scale-up and low cost of the technology,” Pecunia said. The research article outlines a vision of printed electronics that could also be powered by ubiquitous mobile signals through innovative low-power approaches, essentially allowing smart sensors to charge out of thin air.

“Based on recent breakthroughs, we anticipate that printable semiconductors could play a key role in realising the full sustainability potential of the Internet of Things by delivering self-powered sensors for smart homes, smart buildings and smart cities, as well as for manufacturing and industry,” he added. 

Pecunia has already achieved numerous breakthroughs towards self-powered printable smart sensors, demonstrating printed electronics with record-low power dissipation and the first-ever printable devices powered by ambient light via tiny printable solar cells.

The research group at SFU’s School of Sustainable Energy Engineering is focused on the development of innovative approaches to eco-friendly, printable solar cells and electronics for use in next-generation smart devices.

Pecunia noted 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 at single production sites, thereby reducing the carbon footprint, supply chain issues and energetic costs associated with long-distance transport in conventional electronics manufacturing.

“Due to their unique manufacturability, printable semiconductors also represent a unique opportunity for Canada,” he said. “Not only to become a global player in next-generation, eco-friendly electronics, but also to overcome its reliance on electronics from faraway countries and the associated supply chain and geo-political issues.

“Our hope is that these semiconductors will deliver eco-friendly technologies for a future of clean energy generation and sustainable living, which are key to achieving Canada’s net-zero goal.”

The research paper – 'Wirelessly powered large-area electronics for the Internet of Things' – has been published in the journal Nature Electronics.

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