Will the Internet of Things become an environmental nightmare?
FiDiPro Professor Paul Berger, Professor Donald Lupo and doctoral student Suvi Lehtimäki are developing printed electronic components for the Internet of Things.
Researchers at TUT are attempting to stem the tide of e-waste resulting from the exponential growth of the Internet of Things. They are developing printed, thin and flexible smart objects that communicate wirelessly without any external source of energy.
By 2021, the Internet of Things, or IoT, is expected to encompass 200 billion interconnected devices that collect, analyse and communicate data with each other. The IoT is paving the way for an onslaught of new services and applications, among others, in health care, home and industry automation, and environmental monitoring.
“Already the fact that our devices will be capable of tracking and monitoring themselves requires a radical shift in our thinking. So far there’s been little discussion about what is needed to practically implement the IoT. Usually it’s assumed that all Internet-enabled devices will be equipped with a battery, but we don’t think that’s a sustainable approach,” says Donald Lupo, Professor in the Department of Electronics and Communications Engineering at TUT.
He goes on to say that it is neither economically nor environmentally sound to integrate a separate battery or power cord and a silicon chip into each individual device connected to the web. The explosive growth of e-waste would take a heavy toll on our environment.
Alternative: energy self-sufficient, printed, non-toxic and thin smart objects
Who: Paul Berger
- FiDiPro Professor in the Department of Electronics and Communications Engineering at TUT from 2014 to 2019.
- Has pioneering expertise in polymer tunnel diodes and quantum tunnelling electronics.
- Founder of the Nanoscale Patterning Laboratory at Ohio State University; founder and director of the Nanoelectronics and Optoelectronics Laboratory (NOEL) and the Polymer Device Laboratory (PDL).
- Founder and owner of QuTel, Inc. The company develops technology that allows a significant reduction in the size and energy consumption of silicon semiconductor chips.
- Was born in Indiana, USA, in 1963. Has lived in Boston, Delaware and currently Columbus, Ohio.
- Hobbies: volleyball, sports, gardening and photography.
- Family: wife and two children.
“Instead, the devices that make up the IoT could be integrated with thin, flexible, malleable, non-toxic and easily recycled smart objects that harvest energy from ambient sources, such as light, vibrations, heat or radio waves. The microcircuits of these stamp-sized components could be mass-produced at a fraction of the cost of conventional silicon-based alternatives,” Lupo says.
TUT is participating in a five-year, Tekes-funded research project titled ‘Printed, energy-Autonomous UniversaL platform for multifunctional wireless sensors and devices’ (PAUL). The project aims to develop a technology platform for printed distributed smart objects that communicate wirelessly and need no external source of energy. PAUL brings together stakeholders representing industry, product integration and ICT, such as Stora Enso, Walki, Picosun, Confidex, Suunto and Digile SHOK.
The PAUL project is conducted under the supervision of Professor Lupo and Professor Paul Berger of Ohio State University, who has taken up a FiDiPro professorship at TUT. Professor Mikko Valkama is also closely involved.
Printing the Internet of Things
Even before the PAUL project was launched, Professor Lupo and his Organic and Nanoelectronics Group in the Laboratory for Future Electronics have been developing printed supercapacitors made out of harmless substances, such as carbon, water and table salt.
”Supercapacitors are electronic components that are capable of capturing and storing energy from light, vibrations, heat or radio waves. The smart objects we’re developing are powered by energy that is temporarily stored in supercapacitors,” says doctoral student Suvi Lehtimäki, one of the researchers in Lupo’s group.
Paul Berger brings to the PAUL project his pioneering expertise in polymer tunnel diodes and technologies that make it possible to design simple integrated circuits.
Lupo, his group and Berger have pooled their expertise in printed circuit design and Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD) to develop groundbreaking electronic technology that may one day become the backbone of the Internet of Things.
Wear a miniature computer on your sleeve
The flexible and paper-thin smart objects can be printed on almost any substrate, be it a shirt sleeve, a piece of paper or a credit card.
”Their printed microcircuits resemble miniature computers that can be connected to sensors that monitor, for example, temperature or humidity. They process, analyse and transmit data and are as easy to print as stamps,” Berger describes.
According to Lupo and Berger, the operating frequency of conventionally manufactured printed electronic circuits is limited.
“This is why they are relatively slow, whereas we’re developing high-speed electronics that promise a similar speed of wireless communication as Bluetooth. We’re looking to achieve multi-gigahertz operation,” Lupo says.
IoT applications for consumers and industry
Printed smart objects can be used in a wide range of healthcare, sports, and personal wellbeing applications, whereby sensors integrated into clothing monitor the wearer’s physiological signals. They can also keep an eye on the health and activities of elderly people living at home.
“Printed smart objects have both domestic and industrial applications. They monitor indoor air quality and optimize energy consumption. Smart labels attached to food packages can communicate with a computer, and a smart fridge can automatically create shopping lists and suggest recipes based on available ingredients,” FiDiPro Professor Paul Berger says.
In agriculture, printed smart components can be integrated into sensors that track the humidity of soil to determine the best time for planting crops.
“In the transport industry, smart print technology can be used to remotely monitor the in-transit temperature of medicines, sensitive chemicals and food. Waste management companies could use smart labels, for example, to identify and separate different types of plastic for recycling. We cannot yet even imagine all the potential application areas of this technology,” Lupo says.
Text: Leena Koskenlaakso
Photos: Petri Laitinen and Virpi Andersin