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What's the best way to power the Internet of Things?

28 Jan 2016  | Samuel Nork

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The Internet of Things (IoT) pertains to interconnected devices that can communicate with each other and monitor almost everything including room temperature, heart rates and building occupants among others.

New applications are created every day to measure and report all types of data via wireless local networks which in turn may connect via gateways directly to the Internet. If the pundits are correct, we will soon have the ability to monitor the health and operating status of every appliance in our homes, turn off all the lights and learn the exact location of our pets, all with a few finger swipes on our smartphones. Ubiquitous wireless monitoring will enable observation and control of our surroundings anytime, anywhere.

On a more utilitarian note, the IoT has also manifested itself in industrial settings in the form of wireless sensors arrayed in vast mesh networks. Such wireless sensor networks are used in factories, industrial sites and on vehicles and machinery around the world to monitor critical parameters and improve safety, reliability and timely maintenance. Regardless of their intended use, such wireless devices all share a common problem: How do they get their power?

Clearly, there are many alternatives to consider. Wireless monitors should be small and unobtrusive, and they should require minimal maintenance. In the IoT world of tomorrow, experts suggest that many of these devices will be self-powered via optimised energy harvesters capable of providing an endless source of power. While such a prospect sounds ideal, and considerable progress has been made to improve the practicality of energy harvesting, solutions today often fall short in terms of size and performance, and there will always be cases where power is needed and no harvestable energy is available. Fortunately, battery technologies exist which are optimised for long lifetime, low average power applications such as those on the IoT spectrum.

Lithium thionyl chloride: The ideal wireless sensor energy source

IoT applications tend to have similar power and energy requirements. The average power for remote monitors is typically very low, with an occasional need to measure and broadcast data in a bursty fashion. The ideal battery for such applications would therefore favour energy density over power density. In addition, battery self-discharge should be minimised to enable the longest possible operating time and to reduce the need for costly downtime and maintenance to replace batteries. An excellent battery technology for such applications is lithium thionyl chloride (Li-SOCL2).

This battery chemistry provides extremely low self-discharge (shelf life of 20 years plus claimed by several suppliers), very high energy density and a relatively high 3.6V typical operating voltage. Li-SOCL2 batteries are widely available from numerous suppliers in many different shapes, sizes and capacities. However, as with most highly specialised technologies, usage comes with a set of trade-offs.

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