Tag Archives: Anantha Chandrakasan

Solar-powered sensors to power the Internet of Things?

As a June 23, 2015 news item on Nanowerk notes, the ‘nternet of things’, will need lots and lots of power,

The latest buzz in the information technology industry regards “the Internet of things” — the idea that vehicles, appliances, civil-engineering structures, manufacturing equipment, and even livestock would have their own embedded sensors that report information directly to networked servers, aiding with maintenance and the coordination of tasks.

Realizing that vision, however, will require extremely low-power sensors that can run for months without battery changes — or, even better, that can extract energy from the environment to recharge.

Last week, at the Symposia on VLSI Technology and Circuits, MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] researchers presented a new power converter chip that can harvest more than 80 percent of the energy trickling into it, even at the extremely low power levels characteristic of tiny solar cells. [emphasis mine] Previous experimental ultralow-power converters had efficiencies of only 40 or 50 percent.

A June 22, 2015 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes some additional capabilities,

Moreover, the researchers’ chip achieves those efficiency improvements while assuming additional responsibilities. Where its predecessors could use a solar cell to either charge a battery or directly power a device, this new chip can do both, and it can power the device directly from the battery.

All of those operations also share a single inductor — the chip’s main electrical component — which saves on circuit board space but increases the circuit complexity even further. Nonetheless, the chip’s power consumption remains low.

“We still want to have battery-charging capability, and we still want to provide a regulated output voltage,” says Dina Reda El-Damak, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and first author on the new paper. “We need to regulate the input to extract the maximum power, and we really want to do all these tasks with inductor sharing and see which operational mode is the best. And we want to do it without compromising the performance, at very limited input power levels — 10 nanowatts to 1 microwatt — for the Internet of things.”

The prototype chip was manufactured through the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company’s University Shuttle Program.

The MIT news release goes on to describe chip specifics,

The circuit’s chief function is to regulate the voltages between the solar cell, the battery, and the device the cell is powering. If the battery operates for too long at a voltage that’s either too high or too low, for instance, its chemical reactants break down, and it loses the ability to hold a charge.

To control the current flow across their chip, El-Damak and her advisor, Anantha Chandrakasan, the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor in Electrical Engineering, use an inductor, which is a wire wound into a coil. When a current passes through an inductor, it generates a magnetic field, which in turn resists any change in the current.

Throwing switches in the inductor’s path causes it to alternately charge and discharge, so that the current flowing through it continuously ramps up and then drops back down to zero. Keeping a lid on the current improves the circuit’s efficiency, since the rate at which it dissipates energy as heat is proportional to the square of the current.

Once the current drops to zero, however, the switches in the inductor’s path need to be thrown immediately; otherwise, current could begin to flow through the circuit in the wrong direction, which would drastically diminish its efficiency. The complication is that the rate at which the current rises and falls depends on the voltage generated by the solar cell, which is highly variable. So the timing of the switch throws has to vary, too.

Electric hourglass

To control the switches’ timing, El-Damak and Chandrakasan use an electrical component called a capacitor, which can store electrical charge. The higher the current, the more rapidly the capacitor fills. When it’s full, the circuit stops charging the inductor.

The rate at which the current drops off, however, depends on the output voltage, whose regulation is the very purpose of the chip. Since that voltage is fixed, the variation in timing has to come from variation in capacitance. El-Damak and Chandrakasan thus equip their chip with a bank of capacitors of different sizes. As the current drops, it charges a subset of those capacitors, whose selection is determined by the solar cell’s voltage. Once again, when the capacitor fills, the switches in the inductor’s path are flipped.

“In this technology space, there’s usually a trend to lower efficiency as the power gets lower, because there’s a fixed amount of energy that’s consumed by doing the work,” says Brett Miwa, who leads a power conversion development project as a fellow at the chip manufacturer Maxim Integrated. “If you’re only coming in with a small amount, it’s hard to get most of it out, because you lose more as a percentage. [El-Damak’s] design is unusually efficient for how low a power level she’s at.”

“One of the things that’s most notable about it is that it’s really a fairly complete system,” he adds. “It’s really kind of a full system-on-a chip for power management. And that makes it a little more complicated, a little bit larger, and a little bit more comprehensive than some of the other designs that might be reported in the literature. So for her to still achieve these high-performance specs in a much more sophisticated system is also noteworthy.”

I wonder how close they are to commercializing this chip (see below),

The MIT researchers' prototype for a chip measuring 3 millimeters by 3 millimeters. The magnified detail shows the chip's main control circuitry, including the startup electronics; the controller that determines whether to charge the battery, power a device, or both; and the array of switches that control current flow to an external inductor coil. This active area measures just 2.2 millimeters by 1.1 millimeters. (click on image to enlarge) Read more: Toward tiny, solar-powered sensors. Courtesy: MIT

The MIT researchers’ prototype for a chip measuring 3 millimeters by 3 millimeters. The magnified detail shows the chip’s main control circuitry, including the startup electronics; the controller that determines whether to charge the battery, power a device, or both; and the array of switches that control current flow to an external inductor coil. This active area measures just 2.2 millimeters by 1.1 millimeters. (click on image to enlarge)
Courtesy: MIT

Ear-powered batteries

According to the Nov. 7, 2012 news item on phys.org, the idea of powering batteries with vibrations from the inner ear is not new (Note: I have removed a link),

“In the past, people have thought that the space where the high potential is located is inaccessible for implantable devices, because potentially it’s very dangerous if you encroach on it,” Stankovic [Konstantina Stankovic, an otologic surgeon at MEEI {Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary}]] says. “We have known for 60 years that this battery exists and that it’s really important for normal hearing, but nobody has attempted to use this battery to power useful electronics.”

Larry Hardesty’s Nov. 7, 2012 news release for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail about how the researchers have reduced the risk associated with this type of  implant,

In experiments, Konstantina Stankovic, an otologic surgeon at MEEI, and HST [Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology] graduate student Andrew Lysaght implanted electrodes in the biological batteries in guinea pigs’ ears. Attached to the electrodes were low-power electronic devices developed by MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL). After the implantation, the guinea pigs responded normally to hearing tests, and the devices were able to wirelessly transmit data about the chemical conditions of the ear to an external receiver.

The ear converts a mechanical force — the vibration of the eardrum — into an electrochemical signal that can be processed by the brain; the biological battery is the source of that signal’s current. Located in the part of the ear called the cochlea, the battery chamber is divided by a membrane, some of whose cells are specialized to pump ions. An imbalance of potassium and sodium ions on opposite sides of the membrane, together with the particular arrangement of the pumps, creates an electrical voltage.

Although the voltage is the highest in the body (outside of individual cells, at least), it’s still very low. Moreover, in order not to disrupt hearing, a device powered by the biological battery can harvest only a small fraction of its power. Low-power chips, however, are precisely the area of expertise of Anantha Chandrakasan’s group at MTL.

The MTL researchers — Chandrakasan, who heads MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; his former graduate student Patrick Mercier, who’s now an assistant professor at the University of California at San Diego; and Saurav Bandyopadhyay, a graduate student in Chandrakasan’s group — equipped their chip with an ultralow-power radio transmitter: After all, an implantable medical monitor wouldn’t be much use if there were no way to retrieve its measurements.

But while the radio is much more efficient than those found in cellphones, it still couldn’t run directly on the biological battery. So the MTL chip also includes power-conversion circuitry — like that in the boxy converters at the ends of many electronic devices’ power cables — that gradually builds up charge in a capacitor. The voltage of the biological battery fluctuates, but it would take the control circuit somewhere between 40 seconds and four minutes to amass enough charge to power the radio. The frequency of the signal was thus itself an indication of the electrochemical properties of the inner ear.

To reduce its power consumption, the control circuit had to be drastically simplified, but like the radio, it still required a higher voltage than the biological battery could provide. Once the control circuit was up and running, it could drive itself; the problem was getting it up and running.

The MTL researchers solve that problem with a one-time burst of radio waves. “In the very beginning, we need to kick-start it,” Chandrakasan says. “Once we do that, we can be self-sustaining. The control runs off the output.”

Stankovic, who still maintains an affiliation with HST, and Lysaght implanted electrodes attached to the MTL chip on both sides of the membrane in the biological battery of each guinea pig’s ear. In the experiments, the chip itself remained outside the guinea pig’s body, but it’s small enough to nestle in the cavity of the middle ear.

The researchers seem to think that this kind of device might be used as a monitor for people with hearing difficulties or balance problems or, even, to deliver therapies. Regardless of any possible future uses, we are still a long way from human clinical trials.