Artists impression of a hybrid-nanodielectric-based printed-CNT transistor.
Artist's impression of a hybrid-nanodielectric-based printed-CNT transistor.
Source: Luis Portilla

Printed electronics could charge out of thin air

Researchers have developed a new approach to printed electronics which allows ultra-low power electronic devices that could recharge from ambient light or radiofrequency noise. The approach paves the way for low-cost printed electronics that could be seamlessly embedded in everyday objects and environments.

Electronics that consume tiny amounts of power are key for the development of the Internet of Things, in which everyday objects are connected to the internet. Many emerging technologies, from wearables to healthcare devices to smart homes and smart cities, need cost-effective transistors and electronic circuits that can function with minimal energy use.

Printed electronics are a simple and inexpensive way to manufacture electronics that could pave the way for low-cost electronic devices on unconventional substrates—such as clothes, plastic wrap or paper—and provide everyday objects with 'intelligence'.

However, these devices need to operate with low energy and power consumption to be useful for real-world applications. Although printing techniques have advanced considerably, power consumption has remained a challenge—the different solutions available were too complex for commercial production.

Now, researchers from Soochow University (China), working with collaborators from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, UK, and Saudi Arabia, have developed an approach for printed electronics that could be used to make low-cost devices that recharge out of thin air. Even the ambient radio signals that surround us would be enough to power them.

Since the commercial batteries which power many devices have limited lifetimes and negative environmental impacts, researchers are developing electronics that can operate autonomously with ultra-low levels of energy.

The technology developed by the researchers delivers high-performance electronic circuits based on thin-film transistors which are 'ambipolar' as they use only one semiconducting material to transport both negative and positive electric charges in their channels, in a region of operation called 'deep subthreshold' – a phrase that essentially means that the transistors are operated in a region that is conventionally regarded as their 'off' state. The team coined the phrase 'deep-subthreshold ambipolar' to refer to unprecedented ultra-low operating voltages and power consumption levels.

If electronic circuits made of these devices were to be powered by a standard AA battery, the researchers say it would be possible that they could run for millions of years uninterrupted.

The team, which also included researchers from the University of Cambridge, ShanghaiTech University, and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), used printed carbon nanotubes—ultra-thin cylinders of carbon—as an ambipolar semiconductor to achieve the result.

"Thanks to a deep-subthreshold ambipolar approach, we created printed electronics that meet the power and voltage requirements of real-world applications, and opened up opportunities for remote sensing and 'place-and-forget' devices that can operate without batteries for their entire lifetime," said co-author Luigi Occhipinti from Cambridge's Department of Engineering. "Crucially, our ultra-low-power printed electronics are simple and cost-effective to manufacture and overcome long-standing hurdles in the field."

"Our approach to printed electronics could be scaled up to make inexpensive battery-less devices that could harvest energy from the environment, such as sunlight or omnipresent ambient electromagnetic waves, like those created by our mobile phones and wifi stations," said co-lead author Professor Vincenzo Pecunia from Soochow University. Pecunia is a former Ph.D. student and postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory.

The work paves the way for a new generation of self-powered electronics for biomedical applications, smart homes, infrastructure monitoring, and the exponentially-growing Internet of Things device ecosystem.

The research was published ACS Nano.


Updated on April, 12th:

Prof. Vincenzo Pecunia, co-lead author of the study, and his group members are affiliated with Soochow University. Therefore the sentence has been adjusted to show their primary role: "Now, researchers from Soochow University (China), working with collaborators from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, UK and Saudi Arabia, have developed an approach for printed electronics that could be used to make low-cost devices that recharge out of thin air." 

 Also, in the previous version, "co-author" Luigi Occhipinti was named as "co-lead author". 

Subscribe to our newsletter

Related articles

Tiny microsupercapacitor for wearable devices

Tiny microsupercapacitor for wearable devices

A tiny microsupercapacitor (MSC) that is as small as the width of a person's fingerprint and can be integrated directly with an electronic chip has been developed.

Your body is your internet – and now it can’t be hacked

Your body is your internet – and now it can’t be hacked

Researchers have built a device that could protect your pacemaker, other medical tech from remote hacks before they happen.

Hybrid materials advance wearable devices

Hybrid materials advance wearable devices

We spoke to wearables and medical device expert Professor John Rogers about the benefits, challenges, trends and innovation within the sector.

Wearable antennae stretches boundaries of medical tech

Wearable antennae stretches boundaries of medical tech

Researchers from Penn State led two international collaborations to prototype a wireless, wearable transmitter while also improving the transmitter design process.

A new medical device for monitoring vital signs

A new medical device for monitoring vital signs

A new device consisting of a 3D-printed wristband can remotely monitor patients' vital signs, such as body temperature, oxygen saturation, pulse, and respiratory rate.

Leveraging 5G networks to power IoT devices

Leveraging 5G networks to power IoT devices

Researchers have uncovered a way to tap into the over-capacity of 5G networks, turning them into "a wireless power grid" for powering Internet of Things devices.

'Wearable microgrid' uses human body to power small gadgets

'Wearable microgrid' uses human body to power small gadgets

Nanoengineers have developed a "wearable microgrid" that harvests and stores energy from the human body to power small electronics.

Wearable monitors jaundice-causing bilirubin in newborns

Wearable monitors jaundice-causing bilirubin in newborns

Researchers have developed the first wearable devices to precisely monitor jaundice, a yellowing of the skin caused by elevated bilirubin levels in the blood that can cause severe medical conditions in newborns.

Wearable turns the body into a battery

Wearable turns the body into a battery

Researchers at CU Boulder have developed a new, low-cost wearable device that transforms the human body into a biological battery.

Popular articles

Subscribe to Newsletter