Tiny devices that scavenge wasted energy could boost European industry and create a multibillion market but require urgent agreement on measurement standards. A new project has been set up to ensure European developers don’t miss out.
Energy harvesting technology is on the up. All round Europe manufactures are developing tiny devices to be fitted inside industrial machinery to capture heat and vibrational energy lost to the surrounding environment. While they won’t solve the looming energy crisis, they will make everyday industrial processes more efficient and form a major technology for economic growth across Europe.
In many industries senior figures are recognising the potential for energy harvesting as a solution to concerns over the reliability and cost of replacing batteries. Plant managers and system engineers are increasingly keen to remove expensive human hours spent monitoring equipment in often hazardous environments. Where sensor networks were once seen as an expensive and troublesome solution, the increasing reliability of energy harvesting devices to power sensors on time scales of 15-20 years means a combination of economic, safety and environmental factors are proving a particularly strong draw for industry budget holders.
But it’s not just in heavy industries where interest is rising. Regular buildings used for offices or housing consume 38% cent of energy. Recent trials with tower blocks in Madrid fitted with batteryless light switches, occupancy sensors and daylight sensors saved 40% of lighting energy costs by automatically controlling the lighting in the building. The change also saved 20 miles in cables and 42,000 batteries (over 25 years), as well as most of the cost of retrofitting.
With the buzz around these tiny devices growing, analysts are forecasting multi-billion pound growth over the next decade and a whole range of new applications. A recent IDTechEx report predicted the global market would grow from $605 million in 2010 to $4.4 billion by 2020. With the UK companies, such as Southampton’s Perpetuum, at the forefront of a world leading European community of researchers and commercial developers – the future looks bright.
While these numbers are impressive, there are important considerations to be made. Talk to developers and investors in the energy harvesting community and there is one major part of the jigsaw missing – an agreed set of measurement standards to gauge potential savings.
The lack of internationally recognised standards prevents the accurate prediction of improved efficiency provided by these devices under different operating conditions. Without this key information, developers are unable to provide meaningful product specifications for commercially available energy harvesting devices and potential markets are forced to buy the products and conduct their own trials – often at great expense and time.
It has also left the door open for firms coming into the market and looking to make a quick buck with grand claims of incredible power output. When closer scrutiny reveals these misleading claims for what they really are it undermines confidence in the technology and closes doors to potential new markets. This is where standard measurement is so vital as a way of removing any credibility attributed to these spurious claims straightaway and ensure trust is retained in the figures quoted by more honest developers.
Europe is currently a world leader in this technology and best placed to take full commercial advantage of its benefits. However, other regions are catching up and the lack of a sensible base for comparison of these devices, which is understandable and practical for potential users in new and existing markets, is threatening that position.
It is in this context that the Metrology for Energy Harvesting project was set up last year. Made up of seven European national measurement institutes (NMIs) including the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), it aims to develop ‘traceable’ (back to national standards) measurement methods that reduce duplication and accelerate innovation and competitiveness in energy harvesting.
Within the first year of the project, the project has already developed measuring systems for quantifying the electric potential within thermoelectric materials across different temperatures. There are many of these materials, good at converting temperature differences into electric potential, available on the market and NPL have built a system for characterising and comparing the efficiency of each. For piezoelectric harvesting devices, which convert mechanical strain into electric current, the project has developed models to predict power output based on the initial force applied.
The project has also developed an ever expanding industry base of support. This group comprises over 25 companies from across Europe involved in construction, the automotive industry, transport, mobile communications, and sensors and instrumentation, further highlighting the wide range of uses of energy harvesting devices. Through industry engagement major names such as Fiat are helping focus the project direction and inform the development of new standards.
Among these companies and the industry more widely, there is growing certainty as to the viability and cost effectiveness of energy harvesting. However, there is also recognition that to take energy harvesting further and fulfil its undoubted market potential, there must be a platform for comparing rival products in different environments before buying them. From a commercial point of view it comes down to customers knowing what they are getting. For Europe’s energy harvesting developers to succeed and underpin a new energy efficient industrial sector, it’s vital their customers have a reliable way of comparing the output of different devices in their own particular environment and are able to predict power output of harvesters in real world situations. Trust is key in this sector and only through metrology can those consumers put off by spurious performance claims from canny developers be won back.
With inputs from both academics and commercial investors and developers, the Metrology for Energy Harvesting project is restoring the market confidence that will take this technology from small, private solutions, to major industries which Europe as a whole will benefit from. With further industry input we can continue to deliver the metrology solutions that energy harvesting, and the growing industry that surrounds it desperately wants.
Professor Markys Cain is Knowledge Leader at NPL, one of seven European measurement institute involved in delivering this project (email@example.com)
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The Metrology for Energy Harvesting project is funded by the European Metrology Research Programme (EMRP) and national metrology research programmes.
27 October 2011