An eco-friendly internet of disposable things is coming

Researchers are creating a non-hazardous, bacteria-powered miniature battery that can be implanted into shipping labels and packaging to monitor temperature and track packages in real time.

An eco-friendly internet of disposable things is coming
Thinkstock

Get ready for a future of disposable of internet of things (IoT) devices, one that will mean everything is connected to networks. It will be particularly useful in logistics, being used in single-use plastics in retail packaging and throw-away shippers’ carboard boxes.

How it will happen? The answer is when non-hazardous, disposable bio-batteries make it possible. And that moment might be approaching. Researchers say they’re closer to commercializing a bacteria-powered miniature battery that they say will propel the IoDT.

The “internet of disposable things is a new paradigm for the rapid evolution of wireless sensor networks,” says Seokheun Choi, an associate professor at Binghamton University, in an article on the school’s website.

“Current IoDTs are mostly powered by expensive and environmentally hazardous batteries,” he says. Those costs can be significant in any kind of large-scale deployment, he says. And furthermore, with exponential growth, the environmental concerns would escalate rapidly.

The miniaturized battery that Choi’s team has come up with is uniquely charged through power created by bacteria. It doesn’t have metals and acids in it. And it’s designed specifically to provide energy to sensors and radios in single-use IoT devices. Those could be the kinds of sensors ideal for supply-chain logistics where the container is ultimately going to end up in a landfill, creating a hazard.

Another use case is real-time analysis of packaged food, with sensors monitoring temperature and location, preventing spoilage and providing safer food handling. For example, a farm product could be tracked for on-time delivery, as well as have its temperature measured, all within the packaging, as it moves from packaging facility to consumer. In the event of a food-borne illness outbreak, say, one can quickly find out where the product originated—which apparently is hard to do now.

Other use cases could be battery-impregnated shipping labels that send real-time data to the internet. Importantly, in both use cases, packaging can be discarded without added environmental concerns.

How the bacteria-powered batteries work

A slow release of nutrients provide the energy to the bacteria-powered batteries, which the researchers say can last up to eight days. “Slow and continuous reactions” convert the microbial nutrients into “long standing power,” they say in their paper's abstract.

“Our biobattery is low-cost, disposable, and environmentally-friendly,” Choi says.

Origami, the Japanese paper-folding skill used to create objects, was an inspiration for a similar microbial-based battery project the group wrote about last year in a paper. This one is liquid-based and not as long lasting. A bacteria-containing liquid was absorbed along the porous creases in folded paper, creating the paper-delivered power source, perhaps to be used in a shipping label.

“Low-cost microbial fuel cells (MFCs) can be done efficiently by using a paper substrate and origami techniques,” the group wrote then.

Scientists, too, envisage electronics now printed on circuit boards (PCBs) and can be toxic on disposal being printed entirely on eco-friendly paper. Product cycles, such as those found now in mobile devices and likely in future IoT devices, are continually getting tighter—thus PCBs are increasingly being disposed. Solutions are needed, experts say.

Put the battery in the paper, too, is the argument here. And while you’re at it, get the biodegradation of the used-up biobattery to help break-down the organic-matter paper.

Ultimately, Choi believes that the power-creating bacteria could even be introduced naturally by the environment—right now it’s added on by the scientists.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Take IDG’s 2020 IT Salary Survey: You’ll provide important data and have a chance to win $500.