Dutch startup Nowi has launched a small energy-harvesting chip that could solve one of the biggest bottlenecks in the internet of things industry: the need to change batteries.
The tiny device, which is being showcased as part of Huawei’s latest narrowband IoT chip, can turn light — even from relatively dim indoor bulbs — into enough energy to power a small IoT device indefinitely.
While there are other research groups and companies working on energy harvesting, the Nowi solution, which began as a research project at the Technical University of Delft, is the first to be endorsed by a big chip company.
“We have looked at energy harvesting technology from other groups, but this is the most efficient system available on the market at the moment,” says Charles Sturman, Senior Director IoT Product Marketing at Huawei.
There have been a lot of grand predictions about the internet of things. Back in 2013 analysts at consultancies like Gartner and ABI were predicting that up to 100bn devices would be connected by 2020.
The reality has been more like 7bn IoT devices in 2018, according to IoT Analytics. Still impressive but not quite the tsunami of connections we were expecting. A key — albeit mundane — reason has been the battery problem.
“One of the problems customers still have is do these devices have a long enough battery life,” says Sturman. “Connected sensors may save a company time and money, but if someone then has to go out and do maintenance on the sensors constantly suddenly you’ve blown any return on investment again.”
Designing IoT devices to use very little power can eke out battery life to ten years, but even this is not enough, says Sturman. Often IoT installations only make sense if the devices can last for several decades.
“People want to embed IoT sensors in buildings or in roads,” says Simon van der Jagt, founder and chief executive of Nowi. “For example, you could put temperature sensors in a road surface to see which parts of it are icy. You would know exactly where you needed to spread salt rather than putting it everywhere. Cities could save a lot on manpower and salt”
But, he says, it wouldn’t be possible to go around changing batteries in thousands of sensors embedded in thousands of miles of road. You need a device that could last for as long as the road itself; something you can simply “fit and forget”.
Nowi’s technology has also been used in a Swiss smartwatch, which never has to be plugged in to be charged because it can gather enough power from ambient light to keep running. This, however, was more of a demonstration of how far the technology can be pushed than truly a mass market.
“The smartwatch is cool, but the bigger market is IoT chips,” says Van der Jagt. Each Nowi power module will cost somewhere less than a euro, he says, so big production volumes will be needed for the company’s business model to work. He is hoping the endorsement from Huawei will be the first of many partnerships with global IoT chipmakers.
Sturman says solving the energy issue should allow the IoT industry to finally start seeing the “hockey-stick” curve it has been expecting.
Nowi has 7 patents for the technology, a team of 18, and has raised a total of €3.5m in seed funding so far.