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Keep an Eye On Energy-Harvesting Tags

RF energy can charge or operate a wide range of low-power devices.
By Bob Violino
Jan 18, 2015

Energy harvesting is a process by which energy is captured from a variety of sources in the surrounding environment—radio waves, thermal energy and ambient light, for example—and converted into electrical energy. RFID providers have developed energy-harvesting tags that can power themselves as well as small devices.

Battery-free RFID tags can reduce deployment costs. What's more, energy-harvesting tags are opening the door to innovative RFID applications.

"In some instances, a battery is just not an option or can't be counted on for the long term," says Victor Vega, director of NFC/RFID solutions at NXP Semiconductors. "Imagine in California, where we have our fair share of earthquakes and structures need special earthquake cross-sectional beams for stability," he says. "After a quake, it may be necessary to check the integrity of the beams. But if they are concealed behind drywall, that's a problem. You could have a battery on a sensor and maybe a cut-out in the wall to enable an occasional battery replacement, but that's not viable."

Instead, Vega says, "you could place the sensor on the beam, connect it to a flex circuit board, and the tag antenna part is just behind the drywall. On the finished side of the wall is a 'test here' indicator. You tap and energize the sensor to read if the beam is stressed or OK. No batteries, no special cables with ever-changing connectors."

Here's how companies can use the energy-harvesting tags available today, and why the Internet of Things—with its promise of ubiquitous tagging and sensor monitoring—is driving research and development efforts.

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