Northwestern University computer engineers' platform allows even novice programmers and hobbyists to build their own battery-free electronics.

Bye-bye, batteries! Engineers release software for DIY battery-free electronics

When playing a handheld video game, don’t you just want to keep going and going without worrying about replacing batteries? Now you can, thanks to Northwestern University computer engineers. 

They were on the team that developed a battery-free Game Boy that harvests solar energy and kinetic energy from the user’s button mashing to power the device. Now they introduced a platform to enable even novice programmers and hobbyists to build their own battery-free electronics.

“Right now, it’s virtually impossible for hobbyists to develop devices with battery-free hardware, so we wanted to democratize our battery-free platform,” Northwestern assistant professor Josiah Hester said in a news release. “Makers all over the internet are asking how to extend their devices’ battery life. They are asking the wrong question. We want them to forget about the battery and instead think about more sustainable ways to generate energy.”

The problem

Plenty of makers build their own electronic device hardware and software, including displays, motion sensors, and weather stations. They often incorporate cloud computing to quickly develop connected, cheap devices.

But the focus on quick device development can result in less time spent on ensuring the device’s sustainability. The sheer number of batteries needed to power all of these new devices, for example, creates a waste nightmare; most end up in landfills.

“What we’re doing, instead, is truly giving power to the people,” Hester said. “We want everyone to be able to effortlessly program devices in a more sustainable way.”

But eliminating batteries and using energy harvesting methods can cause problems like power disruptions. Solar power can experience interruptions when the sun is hidden by clouds, for example. The developers say their innovation lets devices run perpetually even with intermittent power.

The technology

The system is called BFree and includes energy harvesting software as well as a power-failure-resistant version of the programming language Python. The user simply needs a basic understanding of Python to transform any do-it-yourself device into a battery-free version.

BFree pauses calculations when a power disruption occurs and automatically resumes where it left off when power returns. The system doesn’t need to start at the beginning and run through a long operations list before resuming. This saves energy while making the system more intuitive for users.

The system also is user-friendly because it is coded with software to interpret Python for battery-free devices. The typical device experience is the same without the user having to interpret Python files for battery-free technologies.

“Now everyone can build and program smart, sustainable devices,” Hester said. “This makes the future vision of ubiquitous computing more sustainable, useful and environmentally responsible.”

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