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Who's harvesting energy?

Who's harvesting energy?

Energy harvesters will be a $0.7Bn business this year, with several hundred developers involved throughout the value chain. So says the market research firm IDTechEx in a recent study of the various categories of equipment that go into capturing ambient energy and converting it into electricity for small autonomous devices, such as satellites, laptops and nodes in sensor networks.

One caveat to the IDTechEx results is that the firm lumps all solar cell applications into energy harvesting, so their market statistics are skewed in the direction of solar. IDTechEx says in 2011, 1.6 million energy harvesters will be used in wireless sensors. Besides solar cells, energy harvesting devices include electrodynamos and thermoelectrics - generating power from heat - and piezoelectrics, which generate electricity in response to applied pressure.

There's interesting work going on in all these areas, says IDTechEx. For example, the U.S. Dept. of Energy is working with BMW and GM to turn heat waste from engines and exhaust into power for vehicle electrical systems. NASA uses thermoelectrics to power Mars rovers when sunlight goes away.

In 2021, IDTechEx expects these four energy harvester types will have near similar market share for industrial sensing applications, still expects solar to dominate for consumer applications.

In addition to looking at the energy harvesting device, IDTechEx examines what's going on in energy storage, interfacing electronics and low power electronics that make up these systems. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, the firm says. Each system is tuned to the requirement of a specific actual application, such as the amount of heat gradient available or the frequency of motion. Like most industries at this stage, it says, there is exciting enabling technology but many component suppliers sell horizontally when users want solutions, not components.

A lot of work in energy harvesters focuses on powering wireless sensors. Energy harvester-powered wireless sensors are now available, but a lack of standards is slowing their adoption - too many firms are pushing proprietary wireless standards and users are unwilling to commit to large numbers as a result, IDTechEx says. The firm also says governments are moving rapidly, and could mandate the use of energy harvesting as they have with smart meters, RFID, PV etc. For example, new legislation in the U.K. requires carbon monoxide sensors in every classroom. In the U.S., the government may mandate automatic tire pressure monitoring. But conventional batteries will fail at low temperatures so this could be an opening for energy harvesting-powered solutions.

IDTechEx sees things developing into a market of $4.4 Billion ten years from now comprising the money spent on the energy harvesting component alone. That includes 250 million sensors powered by an energy harvester (at an average price of $6 per harvester), and by then numerous consumer electronics devices including laptops, ebooks and cell phones.

All of these trends, including extremely detailed ten year forecasts, are covered in the IDTechEx report "Energy Harvesting & Storage for Electronic Devices 2011-2021,

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