Battery-free devices? Are they possible?

14th September 2021
In the last 20 years telephones have been cutting the cord from wired to wireless and now they may become never wired, thanks to novel technologies on the horizon

Every unplugged electrical device needs a battery to power its existence.

Battery technology has been struggling with the increasing demands for small scale energy storage. This often limits the use, miniaturisation, and the applicability of devices.

So, instead, what if the future was battery-free?

Miniaturisation is more than a smaller footprint

As research progresses towards increasing miniaturisation of electronic components with increased efficiency, technologies such as ambient micro-energy harvesting, and wireless power transfer are showing high promise at mitigating the problem of small-scale energy storage.

What would that mean?

New ways of charging

Imagine having devices capable of recharging themselves with ambient light, or smart clothes able to compute data about your health while being powered by the energy produced by your body.

Wireless power transfer on telecommunication networks, coming possibly with the 6G paradigm, could allow a phone or a smart speaker to be permanently active without the need to recharge.

Energy, in fact, could be sent via telecommunication networks in the same way that information is currently broadcast.

The next generation of the Internet of Things

A transformation of how our energy is distributed would dramatically alter the Internet of Things.

It would allow companies to:

  • design devices that are free of the bottleneck of miniaturisation;
  • design devices that are free of the climate burden that batteries bring with them;
  • simplify the architecture and form of their gadgets; and
  • push the limits of technologies such as neuromorphic AI*

Where is battery-free technology being developed?

Research at Imperial College London shows how micro-energy harvesting is on its way to become a reality with the realisation of green materials that can harvest enough energy from indoor light to power wireless smart devices.

The department of Wireless Communications and Signal Processing Lab led by Professor Bruno Clerckx is conducting research on WIPT (wireless information and power transfer), an emerging paradigm that will enable using wireless to its full potential in future networks.

This will both convey information and deliver energy simultaneously.

Such networks will enable trillions of future low-power devices to sense, compute, connect, and energise anywhere, anytime, and on the move.

Battery-free ripples on the water

Sometimes inventions need to find their place after they are dropped into society.

The practicalities of broadcast power may be limited by traditional power grids, and the amount of transmissible power.  Deployment could take time. It may however find a place in other ways than simply enhancing existing technology.

Consider the well-known story of Hedy Lamarr conceiving of radio signal-hopping to avoid guided torpedo misdirection.  That concept of signal hopping took decades to move from a military technology to become a core concept in telecommunications spectrum management and wireless networks.

The implications of this advance are potentially huge.  How it will be applied to our known issues is one trajectory and novel ones are another. It could make, for example, a move from the idea of Internet of Things to an Internet of Everything.

Inside though are the ethics of a sensor-laden environment, and the environmental costs of making it such.

Finally, there are its interactions with other horizon technologies such as quantum computing and quantum communications.

Looking ahead is more than an extrapolation of the present.

*a novel template for designing electronics that mimics the human brain and could allow the emergence of smart large and micro surfaces and pervasive AI systems.

How can I learn more about a battery-less future?

Are you interested in this future development and what it means to you and your organisation?

Imperial Tech Foresight is foresight backed with the scientific community of Imperial College London. Get in touch to learn more about the possibilities, challenges, and opportunities ahead with such emerging technologies.