POSTED BY Rebecca Ferrante

Energy harvesting involves the collection of low grade ambient energy from the environment and converting it into usable electrical energy that can power wireless electronic devices.  The energy is sourced from radio frequency waves, environmental radiation, thermal gradients and light or vibration in the environment. As the world’s consumption of fuel grows exponentially, energy harvesting is one viable potential resource for alternative power.

Valued at $131.4 million in 2012, the energy harvesting industry segment is estimated to increase to $4.2 billion in 2019 with growth based on global demand for sensors and wireless sensor networks paired with the driving need for clean energy.  Current applications include vibration-based wireless train monitoring, oil field monitoring systems, windup laptops for use in remote regions, wireless light switches and temperature control, environmental monitoring and alert systems for detecting pollution, forest fires, intrusion, or movement around a border fence.  Newer advancements are marked by mechanisms that charge by human movement including not only the average cell phone, by pacemakers and other electrical biomedical devices.

Currently, little regulation exists that adequately addresses this broad and varied market since the industry is fairly new and high growth, coupled with the fact that the technology is being developed and applied in a myriad of ways.  To help overcome this challenge, the University of Southampton coordinated the Energy Harvesting Open Access Data Repository to collect and post data from researchers and to assist in developing a unified framework from which developers could build while applying established best practices.  As a booming young industry however, one might question the validity of an open source repository that hosts research data, requiring contributors to share their findings for “unrestricted use” subject only to acknowledging the contributor.  Here, intellectual property rights and patent infringement concerns take a back seat; as does commercial competition that operates to restrict cost.

Because ambient energy is plucked from the environment, energy harvesting is often called energy scavenging and as the term implies, likened to stealing.  This concept is promulgated in part by urban legends of radio authorities sent out to diagnose pockets of weak signal strength, only to find a nearby homeowner with fluorescent lights fueled by coiled wire that captured and channeled the station’s radio frequency waves from the air.  In 2013 however, a German student developed an electromagnetic harvester that collected energy from the air that re-charged a AA battery.  This energy is sourced from radio and television transmitters, cell phone networks and satellite communications systems, and so the question may be from whom is the ambient energy stolen and do they have any rights to it.

As technology continues to enable our transition to clean and renewable energy sources, regulations for commerce, safety and resource management will need to keep pace while promoting best practices and competition.

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