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The future belongs to zero-energy devices

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We all enjoy the benefits of wireless, battery-less devices, whether it’s the badge we use to enter our offices, the credit cards we tap to make our payments, even some of the “keys” we flash to open our cars.

What if we had this technology for everything in our lives? A simple tag, sensor or wireless barcode that did not rely on a battery that had to be replaced or recharged, but rather was automatically powered by an external source. It could have a groundbreaking impact on applications in health, environment, industry and society at large, offering a sustainable solution to our ever-growing assortment of connected devices.

It will be impossible to power hundreds of billions of Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices by batteries that need to be replaced or recharged manually. The maintenance costs, environmental concerns and safety hazards will just be too high.

Relying more on ambient energy sources could prove monumental in automated warehouse inventory tracking, in medical instrument management and for deployment in airports, shopping centers and even individual smart homes. Nokia’s goal is to have energy harvesting technology in cellular networks that can support this massive IoT deployment.

We are conducting the research so that this technology can be studied in 3GPP Release-19, starting in December 2023, so it will be available in the 5G-Advanced era, with further enhancement in the 6G era.

A sustainable solution

These zero-energy devices could also aid us in powering our world in a sustainable manner. As everything becomes even more permanently connected, we will need low-cost and low-powered connected sensors to run devices worldwide. They can be bio-degradable and zero-waste too.

Zero-energy will be crucial because of its scope, because it will require very little maintenance and because it has a very light environmental footprint. Unlike traditional devices, zero-energy devices do not require any batteries or manual charging. To generate power, they harvest energy from the world around them. That ambient energy generally comes from four different sources: vibration, thermal, photovoltaic and radio frequency.

Vibration could come from traffic movement, from a washing machine or even an earthquake. Thermal energy could come from a radiator, from the mug of coffee in your hands and even your own body warmth. Photovoltaic energy comes from solar cells that capture sunlight, and radio frequency comes from anything that transmits signals, like mobile phones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, satellite communications and radio broadcasts.

Unlike the high-performance required of critical, massive and broadband IoT, these ambient energy sources can be perfect for low-end IoT and can be deployed cheaply and effectively for a variety of use cases. Some 30 use cases for Ambient IoT have been identified in 3GPP, such as for automated warehouses, medical instruments inventory management and logistics in automobile manufacturing. Recently, Nokia has shown how we can use photovoltaic energy to power sensors that can be used for forest-fire monitoring.

A variety of deployment scenarios

The Nokia vision enables zero-energy devices to be powered by nearby smart phones. Some zero-energy devices will be completely passive, purely battery-less devices with no energy storage capability at all and completely dependent on the availability of an external source of energy. Others will be semi-passive, meaning they have limited energy storage capability that do not need to be replaced or recharged manually. While a third category will be an actively transmitting device with limited energy-storage capabilities based on ambient energy sources.

Before this technology reaches the market, though, several challenges will need to be overcome. These include the development of suitable access, transmission, positioning and radio resource management techniques. Identifying spectrum and topologies for various scenarios and incorporating low complexity security protocols will also be required.

Researchers in Nokia Bell Labs are already tackling these challenges. They have built wireless testbeds, custom devices and state-of-the-art processing algorithms and are actively exploring how the zero-energy device networks of the future will function. Their research focuses on creating the signaling, access protocols, localization methods and network architectures that will allow for wide-area coverage for zero-power devices as well as high-precision positioning and sensor data communication.

When this vision materializes, it will mark a significant milestone in establishing sustainable global connectivity and propelling us toward the goal of becoming net zero.

Benny Vejlgaard

About Benny Vejlgaard

Benny Vejlgaard is an experienced RF research engineer and system engineering manager with a history of working in the semiconductors industry. His professional skills include 5G, embedded software, LTE, mobile communications, and radio frequency (RF).

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Johannes Harrebek

About Johannes Harrebek

Johannes Harrebek is device research department head at Nokia Standards and has 25+ years of product and advanced technology development experience in the field of telecommunication and wireless systems with focus on mobile device modem RF technology analysis, simulation, design and calibration.

Connect with Johannes on LinkedIn

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