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Powering Up Your Design Senses

The Powering Up Your Design Senses Workshop introduced delegates to the concept of smart sensing and energy harvesting.

Energy harvesting involves harvesting ambient energy from the environment to supplement battery power – typically this energy is acquired from ambient vibrational, solar or thermal energy. 
The Knowledge Transfer Network’s (KTN) Knowledge Transfer Manager for Smart Materials Steve Morris began the workshop by introducing two interesting classes of materials. Piezoelectric materials can be either polymeric or ceramic. These materials generate an electrical charge in response to an applied mechanical force. As such, one potential application is harvesting vibrational energy to create an electrical current. A thermoelectric material can also have a number of different applications – but a key characteristic of interest to designers is that they can generate current if exposed to a temperature difference. The temperature difference creates an electrical potential – a phenomena known as the Seebeck effect.
An idea many are more familiar with is harvesting energy from light, which is achieved by photovoltaic materials. However, the potential of this technology far outreaches the idea of using conventional solar panels. To demonstrate this, delegates were shown a video explaining how ‘smart glass’ can be incorporated into buildings. Not only is there the potential to harvest some of the energy from the sun that is typically lost – smart glass has useful changeable properties. It can change translucency in response to light, potentially creating climate-adaptive building shells. Darkening in response to light can reduce the cost of heating, air conditioning and lighting, as well as removing the need for implementing and maintaining motorized blinds, for example. 
KTN’s Sensor Specialist Liqun Yang continued by explaining that when looking at energy harvesting from the perspective of a designer, it is important to look beyond conventional methods. He gave examples of masks harvesting energy from people’s breath and of attempts to harvest energy from the abundant wi-fi signals in the air around us. 
Yang then began to communicate the potential of wireless sensor networks. An early application of these has been within mining, as wireless sensor nodes can be used to monitor the environment to help safeguard miners. Their potential is far greater than this and research is ongoing, looking at how wireless sensor networks can be incorporated into the cities of the future, in which a highly complex interconnected sensor system can help supply an enormous amount of data to help cities run smoothly. Therefore they are a key component in the idea of ‘big data’, intended to ultimately improve the lives of all of us. But the fruition of these ideas rests upon the idea of wireless sensor nodes being fully reliable and self-powered. There is still work to be done in refining and integrating energy harvesting technologies so that such ideas can become reality. In response to questions from delegates, it was acknowledged that there is still a ‘fear factor’ that needs to be overcome amongst the public – who may feel that such technologies are intrusive. However, the idea behind wireless sensor systems is not to monitor individual people but to monitor the urban environment around them to improve the efficiency with which vital services can be delivered. 
Energy harvesting technologies are also vital for improving smart wearable devices, which are becoming increasingly popular. The military too, are highly interested in reducing the weight of soldiers’ equipment through alternative means of powering devices. Looking to the future - dyes that absorb light, printed flexible batteries and coating textiles with superfine silver so that even our clothes can generate electricity are possible solutions. But none of this can be achieved without the vital input of designers, who need to understand the exciting potential of an increasing range of technologies and use their expertise to contribute to overcoming the current challenges.
This article was written by KTN Interim PR Manager Rob Mills
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