Battery-free electronics breakthrough could radically reduce e-waste in landfills

BFree system allows devices to run perpetually with only intermittent energy input

Anthony Cuthbertson
Thursday 23 September 2021 07:31
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Researchers have unveiled a ground-breaking system that allows electronic devices to run without batteries for “an infinite lifetime”.

Computer engineers from Northwestern University and Delft University of Technology developed the BFree energy-harvesting technology in order to enable battery-free devices capable of running perpetually with only intermittent energy input.

The same team previously introduced the world’s first battery-free Game Boy last year, which is powered energy harvested from the user pushing the buttons.

The engineers hope the innovative BFree system will help cut the vast amounts of dead batteries that end up as e-waste in landfills around the world.

It will also allow amateur hobbyists and those within the Maker Movement to create their own battery-free electronic devices.

“Right now, it’s virtually impossible for hobbyists to develop devices with battery-free hardware, so we wanted to democratise our battery-free platform,” said Josiah Hester, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northwestern University, who led the research .

“Makers all over the internet are asking how to extend their device’s battery life. They are asking the wrong question. We want them to forget about the battery and instead think about more sustainable ways to generate energy.”

In order to run perpetually with only intermittent energy – for example the sun going behind a cloud and no longer powering the device’s solar panel – the BFree system simply pauses the calculations it is running without losing memory or needing to run through a long list of operations before restarting when power returns.

The technology is part of a new trend known as ubiquitous computing, which aims to make computing available at any time and in any place through smart devices and the Internet of Things (IoT).

The research represents a significant advancement in this field by circumventing the need for a battery, and the associated charging and replacing that comes with them.

“Many people predict that we’re going to have a trillion devices in this IoT,” Dr Hester said.

“That means a trillion dead batteries or 100 million people replacing a dead battery every few minutes. That presents a terrible ecological cost to the environment.

“What we’re doing, instead, is truly giving power to the people. We want everyone to be able to effortlessly program devices in a more sustainable way.”

The research will be presented at the UbiComp 2021 conference on 22 September.

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