Self-powered, printable smart sensors created from emerging semiconductors could mean cheaper, greener Internet of Things

Creating smart sensors to embed in our everyday objects and environments for the Internet of Things (IoT) would vastly improve daily life—but requires trillions of such small devices. Simon Fraser University professor Vincenzo Pecunia believes that emerging alternative semiconductors that are printable, low-cost and eco-friendly could lead the way to a cheaper and more sustainable IoT.

Leading a multinational team of top experts in various areas of printable electronics, Pecunia has identified key priorities and promising avenues for printable electronics to enable self-powered, eco-friendly smart sensors. His forward-looking insights are outlined in his paper published on Dec. 28 in Nature Electronics.

“Equipping everyday objects and environments with intelligence via smart sensors would allow us to make more informed decisions as we go about in our daily lives,” says Pecunia. “Conventional semiconductor technologies require complex, energy-intensity, and expensive processing, but printable semiconductors can deliver electronics with a much lower carbon footprint and cost, since they can be processed by printing or coating, which require much lower energy and materials consumption.”

Pecunia says making printable electronics that can work using energy harvested from the environment—from ambient light or ubiquitous radiofrequency signals, for example—could be the answer.

“Our analysis reveals that a key priority is to realize printable electronics with as small a material set as possible to streamline their fabrication process, thus ensuring the straightforward scale-up and low cost of the technology,” says Pecunia. The article outlines a vision of printed electronics that could also be powered by ubiquitous mobile signals through innovative low-power approaches—essentially allowing smart sensors to charge out of thin air.

“Based on recent breakthroughs, we anticipate that printable semiconductors could play a key role in realizing the full sustainability potential of the Internet of Things by delivering self-powered sensors for smart homes, smart buildings and smart cities, as well as for manufacturing and industry.”

Pecunia has already achieved numerous breakthroughs towards self-powered printable smart sensors, demonstrating printed electronics with record-low power dissipation and the first-ever printable devices powered by ambient light via tiny printable solar cells.

His research group at SFU’s School of Sustainable Energy Engineering focuses on the development of innovative approaches to eco-friendly, printable solar cells and electronics for use in next-generation smart devices.

Pecunia notes that the semiconductor technologies being developed by his group could potentially allow the seamless integration of electronics, sensors, and energy harvesters at the touch of a ‘print’ button at single production sites—thereby reducing the carbon footprint, supply chain issues and energetic costs associated with long-distance transport in conventional electronics manufacturing.

“Due to their unique manufacturability, printable semiconductors also represent a unique opportunity for Canada,” he says. “Not only to become a global player in next-generation, eco-friendly electronics, but also to overcome its reliance on electronics from faraway countries and the associated supply chain and geo-political issues.

“Our hope is that these semiconductors will deliver eco-friendly technologies for a future of clean energy generation and sustainable living, which are key to achieving Canada’s net-zero goal.”