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Next up for chips? 'Energy scavenging'

Microprocessors capable of "stealing" and harnessing energy from the environment can help address power scarcity, says expert in embedded systems.

Jack Ganssle
Photo by ZDNet Asia

Microprocessors capable of sniffing out and harnessing energy from the environment could very well be the answer to power scarcity, according to an expert in embedded systems.

Jack Ganssle, chief engineer at The Ganssle Group, has been developing embedded systems since the early 1970s. In the last three decades, he has managed more than 100 embedded products, ranging from deep-sea navigational gears to security systems for the U.S. White House, and sold off three electronic companies.

In Bangalore, India, last week for the Embedded Systems Conference, Ganssle sat down for an interview with ZDNet Asia to discuss the future of embedded systems and the role India can play in growing this industry.

Q: The embedded software industry is said to double every 10 months. How have things changed in the last one year?
Ganssle: Technology is changing all the time. In the last one year, the Apple iPhone has come in at nearly half the price, and it's all due to embedded technology. This has created a big change in the mobile phone market. Similarly, we have seen so many new products like the (iPod) Touch and the various MP3 players coming out in the market. Processors are changing every day.

Also, Microchip (Technology) plans to purchase Atmel. I think this will really reshape the industry. When most people think of embedded technology, they think of really fancy, high-end processors. Both Atmel and Microchip target the low-end market, and that's where the volume is. There are 9 billion processors sold every year, and most of these are low-cost.

What role can India play in the growth of this market?
Ganssle: India is a gigantic market. As a country develops and gets wealthy, the demand for electronics will grow.

India is creating its own embedded systems industry due to the availability of highly skilled engineering talent. I think India and China are going to be the engines of growth for this industry due to the strength of their domestic market.

Will the energy industry see a lot of development in embedded systems?
Ganssle: Absolutely. Power is scarce in a country like India, but people want their mobile devices such as mobile phone, MP3 players, and cameras, to run forever. To address this, there is a technology called energy scavenging, where the microprocessors steal energy from the environment. Energy scavenging harnesses any energy that is available in the environment. It could be anything ranging from energy radiated by power lines, heat in the coffee cup or the human body. There is a lot of research being done in this field.

I learned that in Japan, beer glasses come with embedded systems. So each time the beer goes down, the glass radios the bartender for a refill. In concepts like these, energy scavenging makes a lot of sense.

In Japan, tips at a bar go down if your glass is allowed to be less than half-empty. I learned that in Japan, beer glasses come with embedded systems. So each time the beer goes down, the glass radios the bartender for a refill. In concepts like these, energy scavenging makes a lot of sense. The beer is cold and the environment is warm; so you can use the temperature difference to power the embedded system.

Energy scavenging is going to be the next big thing. We are tired of recharging our batteries. In the future, we are going to see less and less of that.

In the supply chain industry, are there any breakthroughs that can make a difference to technologies like RFID (radio frequency identification)?
Ganssle: The problem with RFID is that it still costs too much. For the price to go down, volumes will have to go up. One thing that India might be good at is exploiting technologies like IC (integrated circuits) fabrication to generate extremely low-cost RFID components. This will solve gigantic problems.

If everything had an RFID chip on it, you could go to any grocery story, fill up your cart, and just walk out the front door. As you walk out, each of those packages with an RFID chip will tell the RFID reader installed at the door what you bought. It then scans your wallet and gets your bank or credit card information, and debits the charges from your bank account. For grocery stores, it saves a lot of money since they don't need to hire people to man checkout counters.

So what does the future look like?
Ganssle: In the next five to 10 years, we will see thousands of microprocessors that sense virtually everything. We'll see microprocessors in desks, in beer mugs, clothes, and probably many other products that we never imagined.

The costs of embedded systems need to go down a lot further, and when that happens, it will become cost-effective to build smart sensors. You could just spread tens of thousands of small sensors that cost less than (2 cents). These could be used for some sort of mesh networking.

Mesh networking forms ad hoc networks with all the "smart dust," where the signals move from one dust particle to another, and back to a server somewhere. (Smart dust describes a network of wireless-enabled microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) sensors or devices that are used to detect temperature, light or movement.) When sensors cost next to nothing, you can monitor everything. For instance, you can monitor global warming by dumping smart dust on an airplane. It can stay suspended in the aircraft for months and return data back to a central science laboratory.

And in your home, for example, you won't need a security system. Just spread the smart dust around and if somebody enters and his data doesn't match the preapproved identities, an alarm will be triggered.

Swati Prasad reported from India for ZDNet Asia.