Disposable and rechargeable batteries that power tens of millions of portable electronics could become obsolete over the coming decades as new technologies come to market that can convert ambient energy into usable electric power, new research shows.

The concept, known as "energy harvesting" (EH), is becoming more viable as technology firms bring products to market that can transform electromagnetic, thermal and mechanical energy sources into power that can be stored and used.

"In the near future, EH technology will power an increasing number of consumer and industrial products that are untethered or need to become disconnected from electrical outlets," researchers with Navigant Energy said in a recent published report on the technology. Moreover, EH systems "offer an inexpensive and compact way to power portable electrical devices that in many cases rely heavily on batteries."

According to Navigant, sales of such devices should roughly double over the next seven years, from less than 10 million units sold this year to an estimated 18.7 million units by 2020. Revenues generated by the development and deployment of energy harvesting devices should grow from $268 million in 2013 to $375 million by 2020, the report states.

Products and applications that are already seeing adoption of EH technologies include mobile phones, portable computers and motor vehicle electric systems. Those markets are expected to grow over the coming years, according to researchers. But EH technology can also be scaled to support much larger systems such as building lighting, medical devices and equipment, and even satellites.

"Consumers and industries alike consider the environmental and economic costs of changing and maintaining batteries to be excessive," Eric Woods, research director with Navigant Research, said in a statement. "It is just a matter of time before they are no longer willing, economically or otherwise, to change and maintain batteries to the extent that they have traditionally done, and move toward increasingly available energy harvesting technology."

Energy resources that allow for EH applications include electromagnetic radiation, solar and thermal energy, and mechanical energy, according to Navigant. The ambient energy stored in such resources undergoes a "transduction" process using photovoltaic, thermoelectric, piezoelectric or electrodynamic processes, allowing the energy to be turned into moving electrons and consumed.

Windup laptops and wireless light switches
In one recent application, scientists with Pittsburgh-based Disney Research developed a paperlike energy storage system that can be harvested via rubbing, sliding or tapping. The resulting energy is sufficient to turn on light-emitting diodes, activate a computer display or run other low-demand electronic devices.

While the concept seems complicated to the casual observer, unleashing electricity from EH devices can be done by the simplest acts of nature or humans.

"From wind-up laptops for Africa, wireless light switches working from the power of your finger and wireless sensors in oil fields monitoring equipment powered by vibration -- these are all in use now with many more applications emerging," Harry Zervos, a senior technology analyst with the British consulting firm IDTechEx, wrote in a recent research report on the technology.

According to IDTechEx, electrodynamic energy harvesting -- a technology that has powered electric lights on bicycles for a century via the spinning of a tire-mounted generator -- will result in 20 million devices to be sold in 2024. Very few of them will be bicycle lights, but instead wireless switches and advanced sensors that help manage buildings, transportation systems and other networks.

The U.K.-based Institute of Physics, which represents more than 50,000 physicists worldwide, has said large-scale ambient energy -- from solar and wind power to wave energy -- is widely available in nearly every part of the world. If effectively captured and stored, such energy resources could help displace fossil fuels, which the organization says are "finite and environmentally costly."

Greater use of EH also could help avoid the disposal of millions of spent batteries, many of which contain toxic metals that can leach into soil and water, the group said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500