Bringing PV modules indoors to power IoT devices

Thursday, 18 November, 2021

Bringing PV modules indoors to power IoT devices

We usually think of photovoltaic (PV) cells fixed to roofs, converting sunlight into electricity — but bringing that technology indoors could further boost the energy efficiency of buildings and energise Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as smoke alarms, cameras and temperature sensors.

A new study from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), published in the journal Energy Science & Engineering, now suggests that a straightforward approach for capturing light indoors may be within reach.

“People in the field have assumed it’s possible to power IoT devices with PV modules in the long term, but we haven’t really seen the data to support that before now,” said NIST mechanical engineer Andrew Shore, lead author of the new study.

Most buildings are lit by a mix of both the sun and artificial light sources during the day. At dusk, the latter could continue to supply energy to devices. However, light from common indoor sources, such as LEDs, spans a narrower spectrum of light than the wider bands emitted by the sun, and some solar cell materials are better at capturing these wavelengths than others.

To test the indoor charging ability of different materials, Shore and his colleagues used PV mini modules made of gallium indium phosphide (GaInP), gallium arsenide (GaAs) and silicon. GaInP and GaAs are geared towards white LED light, while silicon is a less efficient but more affordable and commonplace material.

The researchers placed the centimetres-wide modules underneath a white LED, housed inside an opaque black box to block out external light sources. The LED produced light at a fixed intensity of 1000 lux — comparable to light levels in a well-lit room — for the duration of the experiments. For the silicon and GaAs PV modules, soaking in indoor light proved less efficient than sunshine, but the GaInP module performed far better under the LED than sunlight.

Both the GaInP and GaAs modules significantly outpaced silicon indoors, converting 23.1% and 14.1% of the LED light into electrical power, respectively, compared with silicon’s 9.3% power conversion efficiency. The rankings were the same for a charging test in which the researchers timed how long it took the modules to fill a half-charged 4.18 V battery, with silicon coming in last by a margin of more than a day and a half.

The NIST researchers tested miniature solar modules made of three different materials (left to right): silicon, gallium arsenide and gallium indium phosphide. Image credit: NIST.

The team was interested in learning if the silicon module, despite its poor performance relative to its competitors, could generate enough power to run a low-demand IoT device: a temperature sensor that they hooked up to the silicon PV module, placed once more under an LED. Upon turning the sensor on, the researchers found that it was able to feed temperature readings wirelessly to a computer nearby, powered by the silicon module alone. After two hours, they switched off the light in the black box and the sensor continued to run, its battery depleting at half the rate it took to charge.

“Even with a less efficient mini module, we found that we could still supply more power than the wireless sensor consumed,” Shore said. This outcome indicates that the device could run continuously while lights remain on, which would do away with the need for someone to manually exchange or recharge the battery.

The study findings thus suggest that an already ubiquitous material in outdoor PV modules could be repurposed for indoor devices with low-capacity batteries. The results are particularly applicable to commercial buildings where lights are on around the clock; the researchers are still yet to determine how well PV-powered devices would run in spaces that are only lit intermittently throughout the day, and how much of a factor ambient light from outside would be.

The team’s next step is to set up light-measuring devices in NIST’s Net-Zero Energy Residential Test Facility to gain an understanding of what light is available throughout the day in an average residence, Shore said. Then they’ll replicate the lighting conditions of the net-zero house in the lab to find out how PV-powered IoT devices perform in a residential scenario. Feeding their data into computer models will also be important for predicting how much power PV modules would produce indoors given a certain level of light — a key capability for cost-effective implementation of the technology.

“We’re turning on our lights all the time and as we move more toward computerised commercial buildings and homes, PV could be a way to harvest some of the wasted light energy and improve our energy efficiency,” Shore said.

Top image: NIST researcher Andrew Shore holds a miniature high-efficiency solar device as it charges a sensor using indoor light as an energy source. Image credit: NIST.

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