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Researchers devise efficient power converter for internet of things

Researchers devise efficient power converter for internet of things

By Larry Hardesty


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The “internet of things” is the idea that vehicles, appliances, civil structures, manufacturing equipment, and even livestock will soon have sensors that report information directly to networked servers, aiding with maintenance and the coordination of tasks.

Those sensors will have to operate at very low powers, in order to extend battery life for months or make do with energy harvested from the environment. But that means that they’ll need to draw a wide range of electrical currents. A sensor might, for instance, wake up every so often, take a measurement, and perform a small calculation to see whether that measurement crosses some threshold. Those operations require relatively little current, but occasionally, the sensor might need to transmit an alert to a distant radio receiver. That requires much larger currents.

Generally, power converters, which take an input voltage and convert it to a steady output voltage, are efficient only within a narrow range of currents. But at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference last week, researchers from MIT’s Microsystems Technologies Laboratories (MTL) presented a new power converter that maintains its efficiency at currents ranging from 500 picoamps to 1 milliamp, a span that encompasses a 200,000-fold increase in current levels.

“Typically, converters have a quiescent power, which is the power that they consume even when they’re not providing any current to the load,” says Arun Paidimarri, who was a postdoc at MTL when the work was done and is now at IBM Research. “So, for example, if the quiescent power is a microamp, then even if the load pulls only a nanoamp, it’s still going to consume a microamp of current. My converter is something that can maintain efficiency over a wide range of currents.”

Paidimarri, who also earned doctoral and master’s degrees from MIT, is first author on the conference paper. He’s joined by his thesis advisor, Anantha Chandrakasan, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

Packet perspective

The researchers’ converter is a step-down converter, meaning that its output voltage is lower than its input voltage. In particular, it takes input voltages ranging from 1.2 to 3.3 volts and reduces them to between 0.7 and 0.9 volts.

“In the low-power regime, the way these power converters work, it’s not based on a continuous flow of energy,” Paidimarri says. “It’s based on these packets of energy. You have these switches, and an inductor, and a capacitor in the power converter, and you basically turn on and off these switches.”

The control circuitry for the switches includes a circuit that measures the output voltage of the converter. If the output voltage is below some threshold — in this case, 0.9 volts — the controllers throw a switch and release a packet of energy. Then they perform another measurement and, if necessary, release another packet.

If no device is drawing current from the converter, or if the current is going only to a simple, local circuit, the controllers might release between 1 and a couple hundred packets per second. But if the converter is feeding power to a radio, it might need to release a million packets a second.

To accommodate that range of outputs, a typical converter — even a low-power one — will simply perform 1 million voltage measurements a second; on that basis, it will release anywhere from 1 to 1 million packets. Each measurement consumes energy, but for most existing applications, the power drain is negligible. For the internet of things, however, it’s intolerable.

Clocking down

Paidimarri and Chandrakasan’s converter thus features a variable clock, which can run the switch controllers at a wide range of rates. That, however, requires more complex control circuits. The circuit that monitors the converter’s output voltage, for instance, contains an element called a voltage divider, which siphons off a little current from the output for measurement. In a typical converter, the voltage divider is just another element in the circuit path; it is, in effect, always on.

But siphoning current lowers the converter’s efficiency, so in the MIT researchers’ chip, the divider is surrounded by a block of additional circuit elements, which grant access to the divider only for the fraction of a second that a measurement requires. The result is a 50 percent reduction in quiescent power over even the best previously reported experimental low-power, step-down converter and a tenfold expansion of the current-handling range.

“This opens up exciting new opportunities to operate these circuits from new types of energy-harvesting sources, such as body-powered electronics,” Chandrakasan says.

The work was funded by Shell and Texas Instruments, and the prototype chips were built by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, through its University Shuttle Program.

Source: MIT News Office

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The power of salt

MIT study investigates power generation from the meeting of river water and seawater.

By Jennifer Chu

Where the river meets the sea, there is the potential to harness a significant amount of renewable energy, according to a team of mechanical engineers at MIT.

The researchers evaluated an emerging method of power generation called pressure retarded osmosis (PRO), in which two streams of different salinity are mixed to produce energy. In principle, a PRO system would take in river water and seawater on either side of a semi-permeable membrane. Through osmosis, water from the less-salty stream would cross the membrane to a pre-pressurized saltier side, creating a flow that can be sent through a turbine to recover power.

The MIT team has now developed a model to evaluate the performance and optimal dimensions of large PRO systems. In general, the researchers found that the larger a system’s membrane, the more power can be produced — but only up to a point. Interestingly, 95 percent of a system’s maximum power output can be generated using only half or less of the maximum membrane area.

Leonardo Banchik, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, says reducing the size of the membrane needed to generate power would, in turn, lower much of the upfront cost of building a PRO plant.

“People have been trying to figure out whether these systems would be viable at the intersection between the river and the sea,” Banchik says. “You can save money if you identify the membrane area beyond which there are rapidly diminishing returns.”

Banchik and his colleagues were also able to estimate the maximum amount of power produced, given the salt concentrations of two streams: The greater the ratio of salinities, the more power can be generated. For example, they found that a mix of brine, a byproduct of desalination, and treated wastewater can produce twice as much power as a combination of seawater and river water.

Based on his calculations, Banchik says that a PRO system could potentially power a coastal wastewater-treatment plant by taking in seawater and combining it with treated wastewater to produce renewable energy.

“Here in Boston Harbor, at the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant, where wastewater meets the sea … PRO could theoretically supply all of the power required for treatment,” Banchik says.

He and John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food at MIT, along with Mostafa Sharqawy of King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia, report their results in the Journal of Membrane Science.

Finding equilibrium in nature

The team based its model on a simplified PRO system in which a large semi-permeable membrane divides a long rectangular tank. One side of the tank takes in pressurized salty seawater, while the other side takes in river water or wastewater. Through osmosis, the membrane lets through water, but not salt. As a result, freshwater is drawn through the membrane to balance the saltier side.

“Nature wants to find an equilibrium between these two streams,” Banchik explains.

As the freshwater enters the saltier side, it becomes pressurized while increasing the flow rate of the stream on the salty side of the membrane. This pressurized mixture exits the tank, and a turbine recovers energy from this flow.

Banchik says that while others have modeled the power potential of PRO systems, these models are mostly valid for laboratory-scale systems that incorporate “coupon-sized” membranes. Such models assume that the salinity and flow of incoming streams is constant along a membrane. Given such stable conditions, these models predict a linear relationship: the bigger the membrane, the more power generated.

But in flowing through a system as large as a power plant, Banchik says, the streams’ salinity and flux will naturally change. To account for this variability, he and his colleagues developed a model based on an analogy with heat exchangers.

“Just as the radiator in your car exchanges heat between the air and a coolant, this system exchanges mass, or water, across a membrane,” Banchik says. “There’s a method in literature used for sizing heat exchangers, and we borrowed from that idea.”

The researchers came up with a model with which they could analyze a wide range of values for membrane size, permeability, and flow rate. With this model, they observed a nonlinear relationship between power and membrane size for large systems. Instead, as the area of a membrane increases, the power generated increases to a point, after which it gradually levels off. While a system may be able to produce the maximum amount of power at a certain membrane size, it could also produce 95 percent of the power with a membrane half as large.

Still, if PRO systems were to supply power to Boston’s Deer Island treatment plant, the size of a plant’s membrane would be substantial — at least 2.5 million square meters, which Banchik notes is the membrane area of the largest operating reverse osmosis plant in the world.

“Even though this seems like a lot, clever people are figuring out how to pack a lot of membrane into a small volume,” Banchik says. “For example, some configurations are spiral-wound, with flat sheets rolled up like paper towels around a central tube. It’s still an active area of research to figure out what the modules would look like.”

“Say we’re in a place that could really use desalinated water, like California, which is going through a terrible drought,” Banchik adds. “They’re building a desalination plant that would sit right at the sea, which would take in seawater and give Californians water to drink. It would also produce a saltier brine, which you could mix with wastewater to produce power. More research needs to be done to see whether it can be economically viable, but the science is sound.”

This work was funded by the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals through the Center for Clean Water and Clean Energy and by the National Science Foundation.

Source: MIT News Office