New device gets power from 5G signals grabbed from the air

A new way to harvest electricity relies on a tiny array of antennas and a lens. Together, they collect and focus 5G signals coming from any direction.

New device gets power from 5G signals grabbed from the air

A few years ago, Aline Eid was sitting in a restaurant sharing popcorn with Jimmy Hester. They weren’t just snacking, though. They were puzzling over a tough problem. How could they tap into the power of invisible signals that send data to cell phones, computers and other devices? If they could manage this, people might someday run their electronics without batteries or cords. As they brainstormed, an idea took shape. That idea has now become a reality.

The heart of their innovation is a special gadget. It helps gather wireless signals sent out by cell-phone towers. Called a Rotman lens, the device looks a bit like a flat metal spider. “We were so excited. I knew it was going to work,” recalls Eid. She’s a PhD student in electrical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Hester is the cofounder of the tech company Atheraxon. It’s also in Atlanta. He and Eid shared the idea with their professor, Manos M. Tentzeris. “That was a breakthrough solution,” Tentzeris says. The three described their new device January 12 in Scientific Reports.

The tarantula

The harvesting of wireless energy doesn’t work well over long distances. It’s one that electrical engineer Hina Tabassum also knows well. At York University in Toronto, Canada, she works on this problem, too.

Radio waves and microwaves carry data from cell-phone towers to our phones and other devices. The area each tower covers is called a cell. Your cell phone contacts the nearest tower to exchange data. The first cellular networks used radio waves to send and receive data. Newer 5G networks now use higher frequency microwaves. These waves can carry more data and transmit it faster. While that can help save energy, these waves they don’t reach as far. That’s because buildings and other objects block them. Moisture in the atmosphere absorbs them, too, reducing their strength the farther they travel.

Explainer: Understanding waves and wavelengths

When waves of energy wash over a phone or other device, they drop off data and then continue on their way. The energy that had been used to carry those data has no use now. It’s a waste, says Tentzeris — unless the new device transforms it into electricity.

This energy tapping is possible across the electromagnetic spectrum. But “you cannot get a lot of power out of low frequencies,” says Eid. Millimeter-range 5G is exciting because cell towers use much more energy to blast out these high frequencies. So a harvesting antenna could get more electricity out of these signals.

A typical 5G tower sends microwave signals out some 180 meters (590 feet). To gather their energy from the edge of this distance, a receiving antenna must point in the exact same direction from which the waves are coming. Yet to be practical, Eid notes, a 5G-energy harvester should work from anywhere within a 5G cell and no matter which way the receiver is pointing. Eid and Hester had been pondering how to harvest energy from such distance and from lots of different directions.

5G promises new energy savings for digital tech

They solved the problem with that Rotman lens. These have been around for a long time. But engineers had only used them to send signals, not to receive them. Says Tabassum, using them as a receiver is “a new technology, for sure.”

The lens looks a bit like a flattened metal tarantula. Spidery “legs” extend from two sides of a central body. On one side, these legs lead to eight small antennas. On the other side, they lead to six beam ports. The antennas catch microwaves and focus them onto a single point at one of those beam ports — whichever one lines up best with the direction of the incoming waves. Another part in the device transforms the microwaves it receives into electrical power.

The six beam ports are like six of the eight eyes on a real tarantula’s head. With them, Eid says, “our system can also look in six different directions.”

The researchers tested their device in the lab across a distance of 2.8 meters (9 feet). They weren’t able to test it at the same high energies a 5G tower would use. But they gathered enough information to simulate how the device should work in the real world. At 180 meters, they now report, this device could deliver six microwatts of power.

Tabassum worries that this estimate might be too high. Her main concern is that things such as buildings, trees and people would block signals, limiting how much of this energy reaches a device.

Tentzeris says his team accounted for that. The Georgia Tech team is now planning to test the device at even longer distances.

No one likes dealing with dead batteries in their devices. Someday, a host of low-power devices might charge themselves by grabbing energy from 5G signals in the air. The devices that make possible smart houses, smart clothing and more may then not need batteries.

The Internet of Things

Six microwatts is not much power. Charging the typical battery for one of today’s cell phones needs around 6 million microwatts (6 watts) of power. Still, the new invention would have enough power to run most sensors and microchips.

As the Internet of Things is emerging, sensors and microchips are spreading everywhere. Low-power electronics can measure air or soil quality. They can keep tabs on safety aspects of bridges or buildings. They can manage the heat or lighting in a home and even track someone’s health. But the batteries that power these electronics contain heavy metals that aren’t easy to make or to dispose of safely. Finding a way to power the Internet of Things without batteries would be good for the environment, says Eid.

Her team figured out how to make its new device at low cost, mainly by using an inkjet printer. They hope to start marketing it as a product within the next few years.

Will they name it “The Tarantula”? Probably not. But Eid does say it has one more thing in common with spiders. “A tarantula can climb anywhere,” says Eid. The device is lightweight and bendable. You can put it anywhere you want, like a sticker — a very special playing-card-sized sticker that grabs energy from the air!

This is one in a series presenting news on technology and innovation, made possible with generous support from the Lemelson Foundation.

Source : Science News for Students More   

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Scientists Say: Metal

Metals are substances that can be elements, alloys or compounds. They all conduct heat and electricity and can be formed into different shapes.

Scientists Say: Metal

Metal (noun, “MET-al”)

Metals are substances that have three major things in common. First, they can conduct electricity and heat. Metals can also be shaped. Some are hammered into flat sheets or can be pulled into wires. Finally, metals are often lustrous — which means shiny — when they are polished. 

Some metals, such as gold or iron, are elements found in the Earth. In fact, most of the periodic table is made up of metals. These metals are often located in the Earth’s crust. They have to be mined and processed before they are used. 

Other metals are alloys — metal elements combined with other elements. Sterling silver, for instance, is actually an alloy of two metals — silver and copper. Iron combined with carbon produces the alloy called steel.

Some chemical compounds — molecules made of different elements — also have metallic features. They might be made of nonmetal elements like sulfur and nitrogen. But in the right configuration, the molecules conduct heat and electricity, can be shaped and are even shiny. These are called molecular metals.

Metals are everywhere. They’re in our computers and cars. They conduct electricity through our houses. Metals in pots and pans conduct heat to cook food. And some metal elements — such as sodium, calcium and iron — are even in our bodies, where they play important roles in our health.

In a sentence

When sandwiched between metal plates, a bacteria’s tiny protein wires can turn water into electricity.

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