There's a Lot at Stake

E-mail Tom Kevan

In a race for a purse that could well be worth billions of dollars, battery providers and developers of power harvesting technology vie to be the primary power source for tomorrow's wireless sensors.

Battery providers are pulling out all the stops to ensure their place in this nebulous market. Advances in battery designs, chemistries, power management, testing systems, and charging technology continue to make this power source a strong option. Just yesterday, one of the news stories on Today at Sensors told how micro fuel cell developer MTI Micro achieved a 30% increase in the fuel efficiency of a power platform it is developing. And on the same day, a Boston Globe article reported that MIT researchers are developing a device that uses carbon nanotubes to store and release electrical energy in a system that could provide as much power as lead or lithium batteries. However, unlike current rechargeable batteries, the devices could be recharged "hundreds of thousands of times" before wearing out.

Power Harvesting
On the other hand, developers of power harvesting technologies aren't exactly standing still, either. As Wayne Manges, co-chair of ISA's SP100 committee, pointed out in the May issue of Sensors' Wireless & M2M newsletter, the early photovoltaics used to charge the internal batteries of wireless sensors are old news. EnOcean has developed a sensor for the automotive industry powered by the vibration in a tire wall and has designed a device that harvests energy from muscle contraction. BP tested energy harvesting in its pilot project on the Loch Rannoch, where it took vibration from machines in the ship's engine room and converted the kinetic energy to electrical energy And the U.S. Navy has long been working with power-harvesting techniques that range from vibration to light to temperature differentials.

The Prize
Why all the effort? The market for wireless sensors is going to be tremendous. For example, possible applications for MTI Micro's power platform range from powering sensors for surveillance along U.S. borders to deploying sensors in enemy territory for combat operations. Everywhere you look, you see new uses of wireless sensors in homeland security applications. And any time you talk about military and counter-terrorism technology, you are talking big bucks. Move into the industrial and building automation arenas, and you find increasing use of wireless sensors-and the need for reliable power.

From our border with Mexico to the streets of Baghdad to oil refineries, wireless sensors are monitoring a wide range of physical properties, and they all need power. Whoever delivers the power wins the equivalent of the Triple Crown.

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