We're Way Closer to Devices That Don't Need Batteries

There's energy independence, and then there's forgoing energy altogether. Believe it or not, that could be the future of certain internet-connected devices. Ten years from now, charging up could be as quaint and retro as pagers and Laserdiscs.

Computer scientists at Canada's University of Waterloo have pulled off the improbable, according to a study published this week. By hacking a commercially available electronics component, the ubiquitous radio frequency identification tag, they've created battery-free simple machines. The researchers describe RFIDs as "squiggly ribbons of metal with a tiny chip"; they're in virtually all electronics. By modifying the RFIDs in a could-do-it-at-your-kitchen-table way, the team got the RFIDs from merely providing identification and location data to actually sensing the environment around it. This includes detecting light or touch. When combined with a new algorithm developed by the team, larger devices can integrate the information the RFIDs collect.

It sounds too simple to matter, but it's got big implications for how we build and conceive of the Internet of Things. That's the buzzy phrase for any device that's connected to the internet and usually has "smart" in its brand name. Think washing machines or thermostats that connect to an app in your phone, shipping companies that track packages in real time, or any of the named smart speakers we've embedded in our homes. Devices that consume less energy — or no energy at all — could go a long way toward keeping costs down and boosting sustainability. If this research bears more fruit, expect to see battery-free devices as the next big must-have.