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A New Battery-Free System Gives Devices an 'Infinite Lifetime'

The system can help massively reduce the growing e-waste problem.

Computer engineers developed a battery-free system that allows electronic devices to run intermittently on harvested energy, such as solar power, giving them "an infinite lifetime," a press statement reveals.

By seamlessly pausing calculations when power is interrupted and resuming when power returns, the system — called BFree — allows devices to smoothly operate any time power is available, enabling a new movement of sustainable DIY electronics. The system was designed to help tackle the problem of e-waste, 53 million tons of which is produced globally each year.

"The goal, which may be a ways off," Josiah Hester, who co-led the research, told us in an interview via email, "is for battery-free technologies like BFree to replace the battery-powered versions, for reasons like sustainability, but also for convenience and reducing maintenance costs."

DIY electronics makers are 'asking the wrong questions'

The team of researchers, from Northwestern University and Delft University of Technology, developed the BFree, a system that uses a power-failure-resistant version of the widely-used programming language Python. BFree also includes energy-harvesting hardware called the BFree Shield, which is an evolution of the same team's previous work.

Last year, they unveiled a battery-free Game Boy called 'ENGAGE' last year, which is powered solely by the kinetic energy of button presses. The machine was touted as a sustainable form of electronics that could also pave the way for long-lasting electronics for future space missions, as it needs no battery or solar power to operate — in our interview, Hester explained that "future versions of BFree or runtime systems inspired by the battery free programming capabilities of BFree could [also] be useful for space and especially small satellites which are powered completely from solar." The team's new BFree system is an evolution of the 'ENGAGE' technology and it allows anyone to make their own sustainable electronics.

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They hope the new system will help to reduce the unsustainable number of dead batteries that end up as e-waste on a yearly basis. "Makers all over the internet are asking how to extend their device’s battery life. They are asking the wrong question," Hester, who co-led the work with TU Delft's Przemyslaw Pawelczak, explained in the Northwestern statement. "We want them to forget about the battery and instead think about more sustainable ways to generate energy." 

Democratizing battery-free hardware

The system was built in order to "democratize" the team's sustainable battery-free hardware for the Maker Movement in mind, a technology-oriented extension of the DIY culture. The Maker Movement is growing every year, and it is responsible for countless DIY electronic Internet of Things (IoT) devices, resulting in an increasing e-waste problem. "Many people predict that we’re going to have a trillion devices in this IoT," Hester explained in the Northwestern release. "That means a trillion dead batteries or 100 million people replacing a dead battery every few minutes. That presents a terrible ecological cost to the environment. What we’re doing, instead, is truly giving power to the people. We want everyone to be able to effortlessly program devices in a more sustainable way."

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With the new technology, the team says that even novice programmers can turn "their DIY battery-powered motion sensor, for example, into a solar-powered sensor with an infinite lifetime." The BFree system allows devices to run perpetually using intermittent energy. When power is interrupted, the system pauses calculations. Then, when power returns, it resumes automatically without having lost any memory and without having to run through an extensive list of operations. "Our goal with BFree is that any novice Python programmer can immediately use BFree," Hester told us. This, he said, "encourages exploration and experimentation with energy harvesting and battery-free tech. The novice programmer will learn about energy, energy harvesting, and the energy costs of a program they write. They can then change it or modify it to work better based on what they see. This is a key concept in engineering and making, iterative refinement."

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The new system could constitute a wide-ranging breakthrough for electronics, allowing for a radical reduction in e-waste from DIY electronics projects, which are increasingly gaining in popularity.

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