This is the time of the year when it’s popular to talk about the new gadgets that hit the world each year at CES. But I don’t think there is anything more important than the breakthroughs that are being announced for battery storage and charging which are going to be needed to power and maintain the Internet of Things. Let me look at a few of the more recent announcements in this area.
Harvard researches just announced that they have developed batteries based upon quinones. This is an organic material that is found in plants like rhubarb, but which can also be synthesized cheaply out of petroleum. The potential for quinone batteries are that they will greatly reduce the price of flow batteries, which is the technology that is used to store electricity for later use.
Today’s flow batteries cost about $700 per kilowatt hour of storage capacity, and with quinones that can be reduced to around $27. For now the quinone technology can replace vanadium in the negative side of the battery, but it looks like they also might be able to replace the very caustic bromine used in the positive side of the battery.
Quinone batteries would be a huge breakthrough because the lowered costs will make it economical to store wind and solar energy. The other huge benefit is that the quinone batteries look like they might last 15 – 20 years. This technology also has a lot of potential for the Internet of Things because it would allow storage of electricity that could be used to power sensors off the electric grid. This could enable the repowering of IoT devices and sensors used for things like monitoring crops, tracking wildlife or cleaning up pollution.
An even more amazing technology has been announced this week by the University of Texas at Arlington. They have developed micro-windmills that can be used to charge small devices. The little windmills are really tiny and ten of them can be put onto a grain of rice. Hundreds of these could be embedded in the case of a cell phone and the phone would be recharged by moving it around or by sitting it in a slight breeze.
But the real potential is for these windmills to be able to recharge tiny IoT sensors. It’s easy to think of the Internet of Things being smart thermostats and smoke detectors, but the real promise for the IoT will be to fill our environment with small sensors and devices that perform important functions behind the scenes and out of sight.
There are uncountable ways that such sensors might be useful. Tiny sensors could be used to monitor and direct chemical process that could be used to produce super-materials. Sensors could provide hidden monitoring system that could detect and alert homes or factories to the presence of noxious or dangerous chemicals. Little machines could clean up chemical spills or toxic waste sites, could keep pests from food crops or could clean our homes.
There are a lot of technologies that are going to be needed to make the IoT come to its full potential. Generating small amounts of power everywhere and storing power are two of the key technologies needed to be able to unleash the IoT from homes and businesses into the wider world.