Brandon Lucia: Energy Harvesting Computers: Extracting Energy from the Environment

In my lab, we’re developing the basic technology
to support what are called “energy harvesting computers.” These are devices that can perform
computations, sense their environments, and communicate using energy that they extract
from their environments. We can make devices harvest radio waves or use solar energy. By
powering these devices with energy extracted from their environments, we get rid of the
need to have a battery or a tethered power supply. That makes these devices a perfect
candidate for use in future Internet of Things applications, implanted and wearable medical
devices, and further out applications like extraterrestrial natural resource exploration.
The key research challenge that we face is that these devices are intermittent. There’s
not always energy available in the environment for the device to harvest. This makes it really
difficult to build applications, because existing computer architectures, platform design, software
tools, and programmers all assume that energy is a continuously available resource. We’re
developing the basic technology to make intermittently executing energy harvesting devices reliable
and programmable. Reliability is key if we want to use these kinds of devices in medical
applications. Programmability is important because if these devices are only accessible
to expert electrical engineers, then we miss out on the potential applications that all
the rest of the programmers in the world would come up with. Our goal is to make it as easy
to build reliable energy harvesting applications as it is today to build an application for
your iPhone. The biggest challenge in this area going forward is going from one device
and one application to building applications that encompass cohorts of devices. Imagine
sending 10,000 devices into space to sense the environment on an asteroid and sending
back information that we can trust. Intermittently operating energy harvesting devices are an
important emerging future technology, and in my lab, we’re building the basic system
support building blocks that make this technology useful for the Internet of Things, medical,
and other applications of the future.

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