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Reuters/Mike Blake
It’s electric.
BLUE SKY THINKING

A British lord created a device that runs on free electricity from the air

By Richard Macauley

The internet of things—millions of connected sensors, beacons, and wearables analyzing and mapping microscopic bits of data to make our lives better—is widely assumed to be the next big trend in digital technology. But however small a sensor may be, it still requires some energy to function—and, often, batteries that need occasional replacing.

Lord Drayson, a businessman and former UK science minister, unveiled an energy system yesterday (Sept. 30) that could solve both of those problems. Called Freevolt, it harvests radio frequency energy that is bouncing around us at all times—digital TV signals, 4G, Wi-Fi—to power low-energy devices, or to continuously recharge their tiny batteries.

The chairman and CEO of Drayson Technologies demonstrated the technology at London’s Royal Institution, first by using it to power a loudspeaker, and then by unveiling the first device to be powered entirely by Freevolt, its handheld air pollution monitor, the CleanSpace Tag.

While the technology won’t work for energy-hungry devices such as smartphones or tablets, the key benefit is that Freevolt needs no extra infrastructure to receive and share power. “It doesn’t require us to transmit any extra energy, it’s recycling the energy which isn’t being used at the moment,” he told the BBC.

The concept isn’t entirely new. Last year, University of Washington researchers announced they’d found a way to power low-energy devices using the same method, on top of allowing battery-free devices to connect to the internet by reusing existing Wi-Fi signals. But Drayson claims that this is the first time the technology has been commercially available; the company plans to license it to developers and businesses.

Of course, there could be problems with such devices. The radio frequencies bouncing around us have a job to do—send data—so harvesting their energy could theoretically interfere with transmission. But Drayson Technologies says Freevolt won’t mess with data connectivity, or require any increase in transmission power.