Thanks to their diminishing size and cost, sensor technologies can now be installed practically anywhere to perform functions ranging from tracking the stresses in concrete supports to matching energy use with the temperature needs of an office.
Yet even the most modest of these devices requires power, which can pose a challenge when they are isolated from an established electrical grid.
Dr. Pedram Mousavi, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of Alberta and NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Intelligent Integrated Sensors and Antennas, is meeting this challenge with a new generation of sensors that can operate without battery or grid connection.
“What we have developed is zero power, in the sense that it does not need a battery,” he explains. “Power can be harvested from radio frequency ambient power around the device.”
Such energy could come from an external detector as it collects data, much as antennas operate from the signals they collect. Mousavi envisions sensors that operate like “smart” antennas, resistant to the rigours of even harsh industrial settings where temperature extremes, signal blockages, and time delays could otherwise interfere with processing.
He and his team based their hardware design on the same platform that might be found in radio frequency identifications. “We’re using a simple RFID plus an additive circuit, which is passive,” he says.
‘What we have developed is zero power’
The design features were laid out with tools from CMC Microsystems, a network that Mousavi regards as central to his group’s success, especially with respect to making physical prototypes. He notes that in places like the U.S., researchers in this field often partner with an external IT firm to take on the more challenging task of fabricating these designs for testing and further development.
“There are fewer opportunities for this kind of partnership in Canada, which makes CMC’s role all the more important,” he says.
Recently he and research scientist Dr. Rashid Mirzavand founded a spin-off firm, SenZIoT, to bring their innovation to market. A major emerging market is residential builders who want to offer homes that optimize comfort and costs through energy-tracking sensor networks.
Reza Nasseri is CEO of Edmonton-based Landmark Homes, a manufacturer of pre-fabricated house components that can be quickly assembled with far less waste than conventional building methods. Mousavi’s work, he says, is an integral part of Landmark’s efforts to offer what it calls Net Zero homes, which combine features such as insulation, triple-pane windows, and advanced heating and cooling design to eliminate energy costs.
“We have a close relationship with the university, and the faculty of engineering in particular,” says Nasseri. “If we need something, we go to them.”
“We are constantly looking to see how to integrate the whole house,” he says, pointing to sensors as crucial to the information flow that makes that possible.