Smart devices already outnumber people in the world

The number of sensors all around us measuring, tracking, monitoring activities is rapidly increasing. From smart watches and heart rate monitors to smart refrigerators and thermostats, surveillance cameras, dyke sensors, smart machines, smart factories. According to most estimates, there are already more digital measuring devices than there are humans in the world – and experts expect the numbers to multiply in the next five to ten years. The many batteries needed for all those Internet of Things (IoT) devices and their wireless connection to the Internet consume a lot of energy and pollute the environment. The goal of project ZERO (Towards Energy Autonomous Systems for IoT) is to turn the tide by developing energy-autonomous IoT solutions. Launched in 2017, the four-year research project is funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, NWO. ‘Ordinary lithium-ion batteries will not be enough to supply energy to the many devices that are coming,’ explains Haverkort. ‘The goal of the ZERO research project is to create devices that do not require external energy, but scavenge their own. These zero-energy IoT devices will have to generate twice as much energy and consume ten times as little as the current battery-driven devices.’

Energy solutions that have not previously been conceived

The energy solutions envisioned by the ZERO team have not yet been invented, notes Haverkort. ‘We are investigating the possibilities of solar, heat and vibration energy, among other things, along with new energy storage forms and more energy-efficient calculations and communication. Concrete examples are a shoe sensor that draws energy from footsteps, a water sensor that draws energy from the flow of water, or a sensor in a factory that draws energy from the heat in its environment. It’s all about small-scale, innovative energy production and storage. At least fifteen PhD students will participate in the research, carrying out pioneering research in all these different fields.’

UT professor Gerard Smit is the lead applicant for ZERO. In addition to the technical universities of Eindhoven and Delft, numerous companies are involved: Altran, Dialog Semiconductor, Holst Center, Nedap, NXP Semiconductors, Prodrive, Recore Systems, Resound, Sorama, Technolution, Thales, Topic, Vinotion, and Vodafone. The NWO is funding the project as a means of stimulating cooperation between scientists and businesses.

Smart grids help tune energy demand and supply more intelligently

The ZERO research project centring on energy-autonomous Internet of Things devices is not the only example of innovation in the energy sector under the influence of digitization, says UT scientist Boudewijn Haverkort. ‘Smart grids, or smart energy networks, are another great example.’ The goal of smart grids is to ensure more efficient matching of supply and demand in the energy sector. The UT is in position to play an important role in bringing international stakeholders from the energy sector and other sectors together to further improve this alignment.

Optimizing energy use is becoming more and more complicated

‘With all the new energy sources and suppliers that are popping up, matching supply and demand is becoming more complex,’ says Haverkort. ‘In the past, power plants provided everything and everyone with energy. Today we have a wide range of suppliers of electricity, solar energy, wind energy, you name it. Ensuring optimal use all that energy without waste is a challenge. Just think of the energy generated by those solar panels on your roof: they deliver the most energy on a summer's day – exactly when you least need it. If you could store that energy, or transfer it to a company down the street, the gains would be huge.’

Coordination between countries and sectors

The UT is currently preparing a project centring on technical, organizational, and legal alignment in the energy market, says Haverkort. ‘Capitalizing on the best knowledge and experience available in different countries and sectors takes a lot of coordination. For example, Germany has invested a great deal in solar energy, while The Netherlands is known for its highly advanced water sector. The crossovers already emerging between the water and energy sectors are very innovative. At this point, we are still in the conceptual stages, but practical outcomes are not far away. Smart grids are a typical example of how digitization is reshaping different parts of society.’