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Freescale harvests energy from small solar panels

Chipmaker shows off a low-voltage "booster" that gets usable electricity from low-energy power sources like small solar panels, electromagnetic radiation, and waste heat.

Freescale has developed a specialized chip that could lead to distributed energy sources like miniature solar cells powering indoor thermostats, consumer electronics, and garage door openers.

The chip manufacturer this week at a power electronics conference in Washington, D.C., plans to demonstrate a prototype of a device that can squeeze usable electricity from low-voltage energy sources.

Those energy sources could be a solar cell embedded on an electronic appliance. But the chip could also harvest energy from other low-power sources, like ambient electromagnetic radiation, waste heat, or mechanical motion, said Kevin Parmenter in Freescale's applications engineering

The chip is a "voltage booster," which means it can convert a low-voltage current to a higher voltage so that a small solar cell could charge a cell phone, for example.

Some industrial partners who are working with custom-built versions of Freescale's chip in military applications, sensors, and RFID tags, Parmenter said. One company is looking to equip portable thermostats with a solar cell to power the device, rather than batteries, and a Zigbee wireless connection.

Freescale intends to introduce a family of voltage-booster chips in the third quarter this year. "We believe we're going to run into all kinds of people who have a low-voltage power sources that we haven't even thought of who are going to work with us on this," Parmenter said.