Energy Harvesting: turning tiny power into a big opportunity

It's no stretch to say energy harvesting (EH) technologies, which convert small amounts of energy from their nearby surroundings or environment into electricity, are "renewable." Piezoelectric, thermoelectric, photovoltaic (PV), and electromagnetic technologies are examples that can be used to help devices gain energy from vibrations in moving objects, regions with temperature differences, or areas with light or magnetic fields. Though the technologies have been around for a while, electronic devices running on low and ultra-low power are finally emerging that could benefit from EH technologies, so there are an increasing number of opportunities that could include plastic components.

Energy harvesting solar cells
Organic photovoltaic (OPV) devices, like those from Solarmer shown here, could make up the energy-harvesting layers of plastic solar cells.

Pike Research recently released a report that divides this growing industry into many market segments such as consumer, industrial, medical, military, power tools, automotive, and vehicle kinetic motion. They estimate that the $2 billion in EH revenue at the end of 2010 will grow to be $9.5B in 2015.

Embedded EH technologies are one of the most practical applications for powering portable or other electronic devices when it is no longer possible or practical to install, change, or maintain batteries. When the devices containing batteries are too small, there are too many, they are located or mounted in positions too difficult or dangerous to reach, or they would need to be replaced too often to be feasible, autonomous power with no or very low maintenance will become the norm.

EH technologies can already be seen in commercially available devices such as those that contain organic photovoltaics (OPV), daylight harvesting sensors, "touch sensitive" piezoelectrics, ultra-low power sensors, flooring systems, or vibration induced electromagnetic  wireless sensors.

There are many excellent opportunities for plastics manufacturers to become involved with device manufacturers who wish to include energy harvesting technologies in new products, at the device or component level, especially if already involved in integrating small or sophisticated electronics or semiconductors.

With the above mentioned technologies, plastics could help manufacturers extend or develop their EH product ranges into outdoor or weatherproof versions, or offer ways for manufacturers to reduce size, weight, or cost. There may be opportunities for high temperature plastics to be integrated with devices harvesting energy from waste heat, in order to offer similar advantages.

It is not too late to enter this growing industry; many devices using EH technologies are still in development, soon to enter the commercial marketplace.

About the Author: Debbie Sniderman writes, owns, and consults with VI Ventures (, an R&D and manufacturing consulting company for renewable energy products and technologies. She can be contacted at [email protected].


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