Could organic photovoltaics change the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things is changing the world we live in. We are already able to do amazing things such as predict when our machines are going to break down before they do, track our health or the health of livestock in real time, and even request that our fridge order more milk when it has run out. IoT has had an impact on all areas of our lives, from finance to health to entertainment. However, it is still being held back by a large and overbearing restriction - a need to be connected to power.

We have all experienced the frustrations of low battery; having to frantically scrabble around for a charger at 2% battery, or sitting and waiting for what feels like forever whilst the device slowly comes back to life. Being low on power creates frustration and prevents productivity, and something needs to change.

A potential solution? Organic photovoltaics and solar power.

Harnessing solar power is not a new technological idea, but over the past few years, Bangor University in Wales has been investigating how to really stretch its potential by working on organic photovoltaics (OPVs). OPVs are solar cells made from specially-synthesised organic materials. They differ from earlier solar panels as they are not restricted by rigidity; OPVs are a thin and flexible technological breakthrough.

The latest OPVs are over 10 times thinner and lighter than any solar cells we have seen before – they are so tiny and malleable that they can be wrapped around a human hair and still create usable power. What is even more impressive is their effectiveness for capturing light. Solar panels are typically seen face to the sky, soaking up direct sunlight, but the latest OPVs are able to capture indirect light as well as capture light when indoors. They are so efficient it only takes a day for them to earn back the energy that was used to manufacture them in the first place.

When you can mould solar cells to just about any 3D object in order to create power, the possibilities for IoT devices become virtually limitless. Imagine a smart phone which charges itself, or clothing which provides you with regular power throughout the day. (For the fashion-conscious, OPVs are available in a variety of colours.)

Without being restricted to areas connected to mains power, IoT devices could support and improve businesses and lives from the most remote locations on the planet with little or no human interaction. For example, sensors for predictive maintenance could be implemented on train tracks situated miles from the nearest power source. OPVs could also bring power to the most rural communities in Africa, improving healthcare and education.

The technology isn’t just applicable to all walks of life – it also provides the benefits of clean, renewable energy. Microsoft is already in the habit of investing in green energy, but OPVs are worth keeping an eye out for. Virtually unlimited clean power on the move is definitely something to be excited about.

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