The romantic notion of grizzled ranchers out riding the range on horseback to shepherd their herd of cattle may soon be a distant memory, as cloud-based sensor technology now permits real-time animal tracking from the comfort of home or office, or by smartphone.

Figure 1. CattleWatch hub collars have built-in photovoltaic panels that harvest energy, which is stored in industrial-grade Li-ion rechargeable batteries that deliver the pulses needed to ensure satellite-based real-time communications between the in-herd mesh network and the rancher. (Image Credit: CattleWatch)
The transformation of modern ranching is just one example of how remote wireless connectivity is impacting virtually all aspects of modern life as part of the burgeoning Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Riding the Range

A prime example of IIoT interconnectivity is CattleWatch, a cloud-based hardware/software technology that utilizes energy harvesting to power sensor and communication tools to enable remote monitoring of livestock. The CattleWatch system deploys a small number of hub collars equipped with small photovoltaic panels, which are placed on roughly 2% of the cattle, while the rest of the herd is outfitted with collar units or ear tags powered by primary lithium batteries. Cows are exceptionally large animals, so the added size and weight of an energy harvesting device does not cause significant discomfort.

All collars communicate with the solarpowered hub collars to create an in-herd wireless mesh network that provides valuable, near-real-time insight regarding animal behavior, including herd location, walking time, grazing time, resting time, water consumption, in-heat condition, and other health events. The system even broadcasts alerts if predatory animals or poachers are detected (see Figure 1).

The energy harvested from miniaturized photovoltaic cells is stored in industrial-grade lithium-ion (Li-ion) rechargeable batteries that handle the high pulses required to communicate with the Iridium satellite network, accessible from the rancher’s computer or smartphone via the Internet “cloud.”

Energy Harvesting’s Role in IoT Expansion

While the CattleWatch example demonstrates the dynamic potential for energy harvesting technology, in reality, wireless devices intended for long-term deployment draw low average daily current; the technologies are predominantly powered by primary bobbin-type lithium thionyl chloride (LiSOCl2) batteries, which are generally preferred due to their very high energy density, high capacity, and wide temperature range.

Certain bobbin-type LiSOCl2 cells feature an annual self-discharge rate of less than 1% per year, permitting 40-year battery life. The cells can also be modified with a patented hybrid layer capacitor (HLC) to provide the high pulses required for advanced two-way wireless communications. The standard LiSOCl2 cell delivers long-term low-rate current to power the device in “standby” mode, while the HLC stores and sends periodic high pulses to support data interrogation and transmission. The hybrid technology offers significant advantages over supercapacitors, which have limitations, including short duration power, limited energy discharge, low capacity, low energy density, and high self-discharge. Supercapacitors linked in series also require cell balancing circuits.

The use of an energy harvesting device over a primary lithium battery is dependent on several factors, including a reliable source of energy (such as light, vibration/motion, heat differential, or RF/EM signals), the reliability and expected operating life of the device, environmental requirements, size and weight considerations, as well as the total cost of ownership.

The typical energy harvesting device consists of five basic components: the sensor; the transducer; the energy processor; the microcontroller; and an optional radio link. The sensor detects and measures environmental parameters such as motion, proximity, temperature, humidity, pressure, light, strain vibration, and pH. The transducer and energy processor work in tandem to convert, collect, and store the electrical energy either in a rechargeable battery or a supercapacitor. The microcontroller collects and processes data, and the radio link communicates with a host receiver or data collection point via RF or cell phone technology.

The amount of daily energy harvested can be small. For example, ambient RF/EM energy may create only a few microamps per day. As a result, the wireless device needs to conserve energy by remaining mainly in a “dormant” state, drawing little or no energy, then periodically querying the data to “wake up” and become fully operational only when pre-programmed data point thresholds are exceeded.

Challenging Applications: When to Use Industrial-Grade Li-ion Batteries

Energy harvesting devices are usually paired with rechargeable lithiumion (Li-ion) batteries that store the harvested energy. The most popular consumer-grade Li-ion battery is the 18650 cell, which was created by laptop computer manufacturers to provide inexpensive power for their devices. The batteries have a life expectancy of less than 5 years and 500 recharge cycles, and operate within a moderate temperature range of 0°C - 40°C, making them ill-suited for many remote applications.

Certain consumer products are powered by lithium polymer cells, or laminate cells, that feature a very low profile, which is ideal for smartphones and miniaturized handheld devices. Lithium polymer batteries are not suited for industrial applications because of their limited life expectancy, and because their outer casing can be easily punctured, which causes battery leakage, internal short circuits, and premature self-discharge.

Figure 2. IPS solar-powered parking meters provide municipalities with valuable real-time data and revenues. Use of an industrial-grade Li-ion battery eliminates hard wiring. (Image Credit: IPS Group)
Use of an inexpensive, consumergrade rechargeable battery may be recommended if the wireless device is easily accessible for battery replacement. If the wireless device is intended for deployment in a remote, inaccessible location, however, where battery replacement is difficult or impossible, or is intended for use in extreme environmental conditions, then an industrial-grade Li-ion battery should be considered.

Here are some additional case histories involving the use of industrial-grade Li-ion batteries:

Storing Solar Power

The IPS Group manufactures solarpowered, wirelessly networked parking meters that utilize TLI Series rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for energy storage. The parking meters incorporate multiple payment system options, access to real-time data, integration to vehicle detection sensors, user guidance, and enforcement modules -- all linked to a Web-based management system (see Figure 2).

Harvesting a Magnetic Field

Southwire, a leading manufacturer of wire, cable, and associated products for the distribution and transmission of electricity, has developed a wireless line/connector sensor that supports the intelligent grid by providing realtime status of the operational electrical transmission lines. The sensor mounts directly on a bare overhead transmission conductor and harvests energy from the power line’s magnetic field, or inductive power, to measure conductor temperature, the shape of the catenary curve, and electrical current on the line. The readings are transmitted every 30 seconds to a base station using 2.4 GHz RF communication (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Southwire line/connector sensors continually monitor the status of the electrical smart grid, harvesting energy from the power line’s magnetic field to recharge industrial-grade Li-ion batteries, thus enabling the sensor to continue transmitting data for up to 40 days during periods when there is no power line current. (Image Credit: Southwire)
The line/connector sensor requires sufficient line current to fully recharge, with maintenance-free backup of approximately 45 days with no line current. Since the strength of the magnetic field is constantly changing, including many periods when power drops below the threshold required for energy harvesting, Southwire deploys a TLI-1550 industrial-grade rechargeable Li-ion battery to ensure continuous operation during prolonged periods where there is no harvested power. The battery also delivers the brief energy spikes required to initiate RF communications between the sensor and the base station.

Application Requirements Dictate the Ideal Power Supply

While primary lithium batteries will power the vast majority of remote wireless devices, energy harvesting technology is proving to be a useful alternative for certain applications. Design engineers must therefore weigh all of their options, as specific requirements invariably dictate the ideal choice of power supply.

When choosing a power supply, be sure to calculate the projected total lifetime cost, including the labor and materials for future battery replacements. If the device is easily accessible and operates in moderate temperatures, then the math could favor a less expensive consumer-grade battery. If the device, however, is intended for a remote, inaccessible location, then it is highly likely that you will be best served by an industrial-grade battery.

This article was written by Sol Jacobs, VP and General Manager, Tadiran Batteries (Lake Success, NY). For more information, Click Here .


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2016 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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