IoT devices made greener with printable smart sensors

Research from Simon Fraser University suggests that Internet of Things (IoT) devices can be made more sustainable by developing self-powered, printable smart sensors from emerging semiconductors.

Smart sensors are already employed in a range of IoT devices we use daily; however, they traditionally require trillions of sensors, which requires a highly energy-intensive process to manufacture, raising sustainability concerns. New research could overcome these issues, finding that employing alternative semiconductors that are printable, inexpensive, and eco-friendly could make IoT devices greener.

The study, ‘Wirelessly powered large-area electronics for the Internet of Things,’ outlines key priorities and strategies toward pioneering sustainable IoT devices.

Professor Vincenzo Pecunia, leader of the research at Simon Fraser University, commented: “Equipping everyday objects and environments with intelligence via smart sensors would allow us to make more informed decisions as we go about in our daily lives.

“Conventional semiconductor technologies require complex, energy-intensity, and expensive processing, but printable semiconductors can deliver electronics with a much lower carbon footprint and cost since they can be processed by printing or coating, which require much lower energy and materials consumption.”

What are IoT devices?

IoT devices are all around us in everyday life and encompass non-standard computing devices that connect wirelessly to a network and can transmit data. IoT devices extend beyond conventional technologies that utilise the internet, such as desktops, smartphones, tablets, and laptops, and include a range of smart technologies – from alarm clocks to doorbell cameras – that communicate via the internet.

©shutterstock/Andrey Suslov

How can printable smart sensors make the technology more eco-friendly?

Pecunia believes that pioneering printable electronics using energy obtained from the environment, such as ambient light or ubiquitous radiofrequency signals, could be critical to decarbonising the production of IoT devices, essentially charging their smart sensor out of thin air.

He explained: “Our analysis reveals that a key priority is to realise printable electronics with as small a material set as possible to streamline their fabrication process, thus ensuring the straightforward scale-up and low cost of the technology.

“Based on recent breakthroughs, we anticipate that printable semiconductors could play a key role in realising the full sustainability potential of the Internet of Things by delivering self-powered sensors for smart homes, smart buildings and smart cities, as well as for manufacturing and industry.”

The team has already achieved groundbreaking smart sensor innovations

The university researchers have made a series of advancements toward self-powered, printable smart sensors, developing electronics with record-low power dissipation and the first-ever printable devices powered by ambient light through small, printable solar cells.

The team’s semiconductor technologies may one day enable the seamless integration of electronics, sensors, and energy harvesters at the touch of a simple ‘print’ button at single production sites – reducing the carbon footprint, supply chain issues, and energy costs associated with the manufacturing of IoT devices.

Pecunia concluded: “Due to their unique manufacturability, printable semiconductors also represent a unique opportunity for Canada. Not only to become a global player in next-generation, eco-friendly electronics but also to overcome its reliance on electronics from faraway countries and the associated supply chain and geo-political issues.

“Our hope is that these semiconductors will deliver eco-friendly technologies for a future of clean energy generation and sustainable living, which are key to achieving Canada’s net-zero goal.”

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