Every great invention has its myths and legends. For the so-called Internet of Things – the interconnection of everyday devices to the internet, enabling them to send and receive data – the story supposedly begins at the breakfast table. 

In 1990, in response to a challenge set at the previous year’s Interop internet networking show, a computer scientist named John Romkey connected a Sunbeam Deluxe Automatic Radiant Control Toaster to the Internet. Through TCP/IP networking, the toaster could turn the power on, with the browning of the bread controlled by how long the power remained on.

The following year, “a small robotic crane was added to the system, also controlled from the Internet, which picked up a slice of bread and dropped it into the toaster, automating the system from end-to-end.”

Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia, sol chip

Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia, sol chip

We’ve come a very long way since then. Indeed, the Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to connect more than 20 billion devices to the internet by 2020. Already, increasing numbers of people are adopting wearable technology such as smart watches to monitor their fitness, or installing smart technology in their homes to better control their use of heating and electricity. Meanwhile, cities such as Copenhagen are exploring “smarter” ways to collect waste, control traffic and measure air quality.

In short, enthusiasm for the IoT continues unabated. But it’s not without its problems. Our contemporary lifestyle has created “an enormous demand for low-power applications such as mobile and wireless devices. These applications require continuous power. Their ability to operate autonomously is limited by battery lifespan. The need to replace batteries causes considerable downtime, represents an expense, and takes a heavy toll on the environment due to battery waste.”

That’s the problem identified by an Israeli company called Sol Chip. Its solution is to combine solar power with microchip technology to harvest light energy for powering autonomous low-energy devices such as street lights, wearable technology and crop sensors. Indeed, the Sol Chip battery is integrated and rechargeable: it stores solar energy and provides a continuous supply of power to any connected device – including when no light is available. Moreover, Sol Chip has created a low-power Internet of Things communication module. That means its products can now be integrated into “smart” streetlights (as is already happening in Israel). The aim is to give the lamp posts their own IP address and the option to install motion sensors, pollution sensors and cameras.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia, sol chip

Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia, sol chip

One obvious environmental benefit of Sol Chip’s technology is that using solar energy extends the life of IoT devices. By integrating solar charging, storage and microprocessing abilities into a product that facilitates the development of autonomous and connected sensors, its innovation eliminates the constant need for new batteries – thus reducing environmental hazards and waste.

Economically, the technology is smart, too. By allowing battery life extension – if not battery elimination – in low-power applications, Sol Chip’s technology helps reduce companies’ operation and maintenance costs. (In fact, Sol Chip claims that incorporating the battery into the chip-manufacturing process reduces overall system operation costs by more than 60 per cent compared to market alternatives.)

The technology could also be used in other industries and integrated into other IoT devices such as smart monitoring wristbands used in the healthcare industry, livestock and crop sensors to support farmers and enable so-called precision agriculture, as well as home automation and security sensors. Indeed, as the Internet of Things continues to shape our lives, and we increasingly use remote or mobile devices that require autonomous operation, expect to see the increasing deployment of technology such as Sol Chip’s. So who knows? It may even end up in your next toaster.

This innovation is part of the Global Opportunity Explorer – a platform which offers direct access to leading sustainable innovations around the world. The Explorer is a joint project of Sustainia, DNV GL and the UN Global Compact. Rooted in over five years of research involving 17,000 business leaders and 17 expert panels, it guides you through hundreds of solutions and market opportunities which address the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). Discover more on goexplorer.org, and follow the latest news @sustainia and #GOexplorer.

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