Self-Powering Solar Microchips

Published at OnIslam.net

 

Science fiction has always proven to be a trigger for mankind’s wider imagination,  whether extractions from classical TV shows such as Star Trek or movies such as Terminator. One of the more recent serials, Stargate, featured a created technology referred to as the replicators which, as the name suggests, relates to self-replicating robots. While we may be some years away from this exact technology, a team led by a Dutchman, Prof. Jurriaan Schmitz, announced perhaps the first step towards it, (self) solar-powered micro chips.

The Universities of Twente, Nankai (China) and Utrecht have worked together on this project, presenting their findings at the International Electron Device Meeting, held annually in San Francisco in December. The team have successfully built a solar cell onto a CMOS chip – the same type of chip typically found in, say, a digital camera.

A traditional approach would be to create an independent solar cell which is then attached to the electronics. The new approach, however, builds the cell directly onto the microchip, using vapour deposition techniques – by the simplest of analogies, ‘evaporation’ that leaves behind thin films of a substance. Not only does this ensure that less materials are being used, but by using either amorphous silicon (a-Si) or Copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) for the solar cells, it ensures that both the solar cells and the microchips function and optimal levels.

The team discovered that indoors, the cells generated 1 micro watt of electricity per square millimeter, while outdoors, the a-Si generated 50 micro watts and the CIGS generated 70 micro watts.

Further, the peak process temperature for a-Si is 275c with efficiencies for CIGS at 450c. At this temperature the CMOS chip surface for 30 minutes. Beyond this time, mechanical stress based on thermal expansion may affect efficiency.

To place this in context, on one end of the scale, 1 micro watt is sufficient to power a CMOS sensor, though on the other end of the scale, 70 micro watts doesn’t even begin to address the need for renewable energy. Still, the implication of this revolutionary technology is a new generation of microchips that will not need external batteries or mains supplies to power themselves.

Speaking of their usage, Prof Jurriaan said, “The chips are likely to be used in ubiquitous computing networks” though this isn’t without hurdles. How many devices are commercially available where the chips are physically exposed to be able to capture solar power? Yet the beauty of evolution and innovation is that the human mind remains creative, what appears to be a barrier today may not be a barrier tomorrow.

 

In a dialogue with Prof Jurriaan he continued to explain that of the three platform categories: high performance, personal computing and sensor based where his team’s current focus is on the latter as it relies on ultra low power consumption, an example of which may be implanted medical devices. To this end the research falls within the ‘smart dust’ category which has been defined by Wikipedia as:

 

“Smartdust is a hypothetical system of many tiny microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) such as sensors, robots, or other devices, that can detect, for example, light, temperature, vibration, magnetism or chemicals; are usually networked wirelessly; and are distributed over some area to perform tasks, usually sensing.”

 

Soon self-powering smart dust technologies, services and applications will be able to generate multiple benefits across multiple platforms and creating previously unheard of experiences. Two examples follow:

Consider a personal set of sensors that capture the data transmitted to a wireless device. For example, today, the blogging world has moved from text to include photos and video with more innovative companies offering events and activities live streamed. Whether it is a group of friends out on a car rally day or the Olympics in 2016, smartdust can be ‘scattered’ to capture not just the visual experience but add layers to it e.g. body temperature, heart rate, adrenalin, etc. Thus the viewer gains, quite possibly in real-time, a more comprehensive insight into the performer’s experience. The more tech savvy will understand that capturing such data is already possible. However the size and convenience of these technologies will make their being packaged into a content offering significantly more cost effective.

Going a step further. As power efficiency improves and the technology becomes scalable, hybrid technologies may become a reality.

 

Consider then mobile computing where, in my case as a glasses wearer, the frames are made of various chips powered by the natural light around it. Information is then projected as an overlay onto the glasses, very much like a head-up display on a jet plane; along with other data that can be gathered wirelessly. Sensors built into the frame would allow eye movement to be tracked enabling some semblance of control. Where today I carry an Apple Mac which is then connected to a projector in an office for a meeting, tomorrow, the presentation can either be downloaded to my glasses, or transferred to my glasses wirelessly. When I stand to give a presentation, the glasses connect to the projector, and I control slide movement by either by my eyes, or better, voice recognition, with sensors also built into the frames that pick up on key words which when spoken move onto the next slide.

 

While the application of smart dust with self-powering micro chips opens the world to some very new opportunities. Prof Jurriaan concludes, “The roadmap into the future involves much more the advancement of ultra-low power design, than the improvement of the solar cell’s energy supply”. We may be generations away from self-replicating robots, but to think, it all started by empowering a single microchip with a solar panel.

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