The potential of ambient energy harvesting to power electronic
Dr Peter Harrop, Chairman, IDTechEx
13 March 2009
Energy harvesting (EH) or scavenging is the use of ambient energy to
provide electrical power for small electronic and electrical devices.
The technologies employed variously convert human power, body fluids,
heat differences, vibration or other movement, dirt, vegetation,
ultraviolet, visible light or infrared to electricity. Most are only at
the laboratory stage and many are solutions looking for problems, yet
practical applications of some harvesting technologies have been around
for some time.
These vary from the bicycle dynamo to the solar powered calculator or
road sign. Proven solutions often store the energy usually either with a
capacitor, as with some bicycles, or with a rechargeable battery as with
some wind-up lanterns. However, certain wind-up radios manage this with
clever clockwork that releases the energy at a required steady rate.
We therefore have a considerable repertoire of energy harvesting
technologies and uses today but there is a tsunami wave of new
technologies and applications that they will be both affordable and
usable in the next few years. A multi-billion dollar market awaits.
The emerging applications are analysed by sector in the new IDTechEx
report, Energy Harvesting and Storage for Electronic Devices
1. Buildings: a huge market, where over 500,000
wireless control devices with no battery or ac mains connection have
already been sold. These sharply reduce up-front and ongoing costs,
including huge gains in the cost of energy used for air conditioning,
etc in buildings.
2. Wireless Sensor Networks (WSN): 90% of envisaged
uses of Wireless Sensor Networks (WSN) are impractical without energy
harvesting. These mesh networks are rarely feasible because, in the
biggest projects envisaged, such as those where nodes are embedded in
buildings and machines for life or on billions of trees, the batteries
would be inaccessible or prohibitively expensive to access.
3. Remote rural areas: getting almost free power for
electronics and lighting to remote areas in developing countries where
batteries are not affordable: indeed, they are rarely even obtainable.
4. In-body devices: bionics and sensors are needed
in the human body that stay there for the life of the patient. These are
the focus of a huge new research effort.
5. Portable electronic devices: devices such as
mobile phones and laptop computers have batteries that frequently go
down. Indeed, the power situation gets worse as more functionality is
added. This inconvenience involves two billion people.
In all these applications there is now a delightful conjunction of
progress by which new forms of lighting and electronics need far less
electricity and new forms of energy harvesting are better able to
provide it. They can meet in the middle in just a few years.
The environmental argument
Primarily, the environmental argument for energy harvesting is not
saving power stations and their attendant pollution directly. After all,
we define EH as powering small electronic devices not acting as a heavy
power source for heating, motive power and so on.
Information and communication technology (ICT) represent only two
percent of the energy consumption in the world but they can lead to huge
environmental savings if deployed more widely and appropriately to
optimise heavy power creation and handling by utilities and others.
Most notably, 38% of energy is consumed in buildings but it would be
much less if electronic controls were cheaper and easier to install.
More affordable building controls of longer life are the focus of most
of the 70+ companies in the EnOcean energy harvesting alliance.
For example, EnOcean, presenting at a recent event, described how
they have installed 4200 wireless and battery-less light switches,
occupancy sensors and daylight sensors in a new building construction in
Madrid. These are powered by energy harvesters and embedded in the
This saved: 40% of lighting energy costs by automatically controlling
the lighting in the building; 20 miles in cables; 42,000 batteries (over
25 years); and most of the cost of retrofitting.
Batteries usually contain poisons, so the environmental benefits are
wide ranging and substantial. Indeed EH is likely to replace many of the
30 billion button batteries sold yearly, many containing poisons. That
will involve the exciting new laminar rechargeable batteries and
supercapacitors for storage of the harvested energy and sometimes the
electronics will accept the input from energy harvesting with no storage
The primary motivations for use of energy harvesting, by type of
device, are given below.
Table 1. Examples of the primary motivation to use energy harvesting
by type of device
||Primary reason for
phones, e-books, laptops
||Convenience — no drained
batteries, never need to find a charging point or carry a heavy
||Mobile and inaccessible nodes
become feasible in huge deployments such as monitoring trees in
forest fires and sensors embedded in buildings and engines.
Support costs greatly reduce.
||Operational availability —
security of use.
||Safety. Operational availability
— security of use. Intrusive procedures reduced.
||Cost, convenience, reliability,
better user interface eg electronically spoken prompting,
scrolling of instructions.
goods and packaging
||Cost, new merchandising
features, better user interface eg moving color images become
safe and viable
Source: IDTechEx report:
Energy Harvesting and Storage for Electronic Devices 2009-2019.
Market by applicational sector
IDTechEx finds that consumer applications are and will remain the
greatest market for energy harvesting on small devices by value.
However, industrial applications will grow fastest and will be at the
billion dollar level in ten years. The segmentation by value projected
for 2014, excluding bicycle dynamos and large space vehicles is shown
below. In addition to military and third world applications, the Other
category includes uses in farming and research for example.
Figure 1. Global market value of energy harvesting for small
electronic and electrical devices in 2014.
Source: IDTechEx report: Energy Harvesting and
Storage for Electronic Devices 2009-2019.
Prosperity correlates strongly with education and lighting. The "One
Laptop Per Child" initiative of Massachusetts Institute of Technology
and similar initiatives by Intel, the Vellore Institute in India, the
Chinese Government and others target sub $100 laptops that are extremely
rugged and employ energy harvesting — often several types of harvesting
such as electrodynamics from human power and photovoltaics.
Equally important are the projects seeking to create ubiquitous radio
in the Third World such as the wind-up 'Freeplay' versions originating
in the UK and delivered through South Africa.
The wind-up torches and lanterns already widely sold in the developed
world typically employ batteries for storage and this limits their life
to a few years. The more elegant Freeplay technology needs no battery
and life may be as much as twenty years. Then there is ubiquitous
lighting being sought by Harvard University with Lebônê Solutions in
South Africa and backed by the World Bank and others.
Microbial fuel cells
Lebônê Solutions, Inc. is a social enterprise working in off-grid
energy delivery and lighting technology. The mission of Lebônê is to
help end the energy and lighting crisis in Africa by identifying and
harnessing emerging technologies, developing and adapting them for the
African market, and delivering them to rural villages in an innovative
and accessible manner. The group was incubated under the tutelage of
Professor David Edwards in the Harvard Idea Translation Lab. Lebônê
plans to offer more holistic solutions to the pressing problems in
One priority is Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) which capture energy
produced by naturally occurring microbial metabolism. This can generate
electricity from organic-rich materials such as soil, manure, or food
scraps. By contrast, most renewable energy technologies are based on
solar or wind power. Unlike these and other natural solutions for
generating electricity, the team says MFCs are more reliable - working
day or night, rain or shine - and are markedly less expensive.
Radical change in the consumer market
So far, the market for energy harvesting in consumer goods has been
largely confined to solar cells on calculators, wristwatches and the
like, and dynamos on bicycles. That will now change radically thanks to
a huge push to overcome the problem of mobile phones and laptops losing
This is being aggravated by the trend towards more functionality such
as incorporating cameras, video and quality sound and phones that
emulate financial cards or project a video on the wall.
Maybe all wristwatches, cameras, e-books, car keys and other
mainstream mobile consumer electronics will adopt energy harvesting and
certainly there is much work to create e-labels, e-packaging and
electronic skin patches.
Low cost energy harvesting has the potential to go way beyond the 60
billion conventional labels printed every year or the $430 billion
conventional packaging industry. It can take a bite from the $3 trillion
consumer goods industry as a whole.
The very success of the button battery, with 30 billion sold yearly
on some estimates, is leading to considerable expense and inconvenience
in changing them and it is an environmental threat as well. There has to
be a better way. Nevertheless, it is very challenging, so wait up to ten
years for massive deployment of energy harvesting in disposable consumer
IDTechEx has identified a desire in the industry to move from the
technical niceties to commercialisation and market creation, including a
close examination of what the potential users really want.
In addition, investors and new entrants need to understand the
potential and the progress so far. To serve these needs, it is staging a
conference "Energy Harvesting and Storage" at Cambridge University in
the UK on 3-4 June 2009 with optional Masterclasses and visits to local
centres of excellence on 2nd and 5th June 2009.
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