Around 30 billion button cells are used around the world each year. Replacing them takes time, in addition to their being an environmental problem and having cost implications. This is a nuisance in industry, where machinery must be kept running without breaks in production.
"If there was no need to worry about changing rechargeable batteries or cells, we could achieve maintenance-free sensor systems," says Sirpa Launis, Research Manager with mining and construction equipment manufacturer Sandvik Mining and Construction Ltd.
Sandvik is involved in a consortium which participated in Tekes’ Challenge Finland competition, with the aim of jointly developing energy harvesting techniques and devices. The Challenge Finland competition sought solutions to major problems, which would expedite business processes.
In practice, energy harvesting or capture refers to the conversion of ambient energy, such as kinetic or thermal energy, into electrical power. Wind and solar power are probably the most familiar examples. Energy harvesting yields low power. "We are talking about a few dozen milliwatts. Harvested energy is sufficient as a power source for electronics because the energy consumption of electronic devices has decreased," says Pekka Ruuskanen, a Professor at Tampere University of Technology and the head of the consortium.
The techniques developed by the consortium are based on the electronic, magnetic, mechanical and thermodynamic properties of materials.
Three research organisations and a mixture of small and large companies are involved in the consortium. Sandvik and another consortium member, Forciot Oy, which manufactures measurement electronics for smart clothes, see multiple applications for energy harvesting.
Through the project, Forciot is hoping to develop sensors, powered by energy harvesting, for wearable electronics devices.
Energy can be harvested directly from sources such as movement during sport, while running for example.
"People are not accustomed to changing batteries in shirts and shoes. This could raise the purchasing threshold. For this reason, it would be better if clothes or footwear with additional features and measurement functionality had a completely independent energy solution," says Petri Järvinen, Chief Technology Officer at Forciot.
We want to make use of energy harvesting in applications such as booms and drills in excavation equipment.
"Automation and data collection are increasing in the mining industry. However, power is needed for the related sensor systems and data processing and transmission. When energy harvesting can be combined with wireless data transfer, damage-prone cables will become a thing of the past," says Launis.
The team in receipt of Tekes’ Challenge Finland funding believes strongly in the future of energy harvesting.
Ruuskanen states that the current market potential of energy harvesting is around two billion euros for power sources of a few dozen milliwatts.
"The market is growing by around 20 percent a year, in other words the sector is growing markedly."
In addition to freeing us from cables and batteries, the use of energy harvesting increases the reliability of devices. The energy is also completely emission-free, eco-electricity. Unlike cables and batteries, it does not create waste in the environment.
Energy harvesting has an almost infinite number of possible applications. "The wildest dream involves using energy harvesting for cardiac pacemakers," Ruuskanen says.
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Sandvik Mining and Construction Oy
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Tampere University of Technology
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Tampere University of Technology, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the University of Oulu, and eight companies are involved in the consortium for clean energy from the environment through energy harvesting.
Tekes Challenge Finland competition
In the Challenge Finland competition, researchers have worked on solutions - that are of use to the private sector - to major problems. The companies involved have embraced the most commercially promising ideas and collaborated with the researchers in developing them further.
A total of 33 winning R&D consortia have been selected for the second stage of the competition. These include a total of 98 companies, with their own innovation projects funded by Tekes, and 21 research organisations. In addition, several companies, which are funding or otherwise supporting - and benefiting from - the work of the research organisations, are participating in the consortia without Tekes funding. The projects involved in this two-stage competition have been funded by a total of around EUR 47 million.
The competition, which is partly based on Government key project funding, has enhanced the interaction between research and the private sector, and the commercial exploitation and impact of research results in the creation of innovations.
Read more about the competition and its winners:
Text and videos: Kaiku Helsinki
Photos: Fotolia and Sandvik Mining and Construction Oy