Researchers Point to Printable Semis as Path to Sustainable IoT
New research outlines the state of the printable electronics industry and the role it could play in the future of IoT.
As the Internet of Things (IoT) grows in popularity, the challenges facing the technology at scale are becoming more prominent. Specifically, concerns about sustainability and scalability of the technology are at the forefront of researchers’ minds. Now, with a projected total of one trillion deployed IoT devices by 2035, the concerns of sustainability can no longer be ignored.
To some researchers, the answer for a more sustainable future for the IoT might lie in printable semiconductors and electronics. Now, in an effort to outline the state of the industry and the potential for printable electronics, researchers from Simon Fraser University (SFU) have published a new research paper.
In this article, we’ll discuss the need for sustainability in the IoT and some potential solutions that are laid out by the new research paper.
Research Offers Road Toward Printable Electronics
In the research paper, the team describes a couple of trends that they believe could open the door to a more sustainable IoT.
This schematic depicts the SFU researchers’ concept of a sensor-node architecture, LAE semiconductors, energy harvesters and the application areas that apply. Image used courtesy of Pecunia and co-authors
According to the paper, one technology that may be necessary for the future of the IoT is energy harvesting. The major benefit of employing an energy harvesting scheme would be removing the need for batteries in deployed devices.
By doing this, future IoT devices can still be produced and deployed at scale without requiring an equal scaling-up of the resource and energy-intensive manufacturing processes required for battery production.
Additionally, the paper argues that printed electronics have huge potential in creating a sustainable future for the IoT. Citing numerous different papers and recent advances in the field, the researchers lay out the argument for printable semiconductors and electronics.
The recycling and reuse of LAEs shows their potential in achieving circularity in electronics. Image used courtesy of Pecunia and co-authors
Amongst these arguments, the researchers claim that the process for printable electronics is significantly less energy intensive and less wasteful than traditional manufacturing processes.
Additionally, printed electronics, such as large-area electronics (LAE) systems have been shown to consume less energy than conventional solutions. For example, the researchers cite that a printed 900 MHz retrodirective LAE system 83 cm × 83 cm in size would require approximately 25 times less energy per bit of a typical active device operating at the same frequency. By consuming less energy, printed electronics can help make truly battery-free systems more technologically feasible.
Sustainable Concerns in IoT
While the IoT continues to grow in size, one of the most prominent concerns is sustainability. Within this, a major source of concern is the reliance of IoT devices on battery technology. From a sustainability perspective, this dependence on batteries is concerning because of the considerations around the supply chain for battery technology.
The need to mine materials (lithium, for example), the energy required to manufacture the batteries, and the supply chain associated with battery production all contribute to the negative environmental impact of the battery industry.
Beyond batteries, there are additional concerns about the sustainability of the semiconductors that are widely utilized in IoT devices. Environmentalists have expressed fear over the intense energy usage needed for the production of these semiconductors as well as the raw materials needed to physically manufacture them.
Even though these problems are legitimate concerns at this moment, the severity increases as widespread IoT deployment ramps up. For example, the SFU research indicates that the current annual global lithium production would not be sufficient to meet the demands of a one-trillion-node IoT relying on common lithium-based coin cell batteries. Hence, meeting the demand for a growing IoT would require an increase in production, only further exacerbating the environmental impact of the industry.