Meet the team that recovers ambient RF energy to power IoT devices and benefit the environment


by Toni Hayden

Northampton, MA –News Direct– Cisco Systems Inc.

Teratonix RF Harvester Powered Battery-less IoT Temperature Sensor Node

Now that the 2021 Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge winners have been officially announced, we’re excited for you to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is an annual competition that awards cash prizes to junior tech entrepreneurs who solve the world’s toughest problems. Now in its fifth year, the competition has awarded its biggest prize pool of all time, US $ 1 million, to 20 winning teams around the world.

Out of the 20 teams, Teratonix was honored as the third finalist with a prize of 25,000 USD. Teratonix is ​​an American ambient radio frequency (RF) energy harvesting company that has developed a solution to generate electricity to power sensors, wearable devices and implanted medical devices without the need for batteries. This is a significant technological breakthrough with far-reaching benefits for the Internet of Things (IoT) industry and the environment in general.

To learn more about Teratonix’s technology and the milestones it hopes to take with recognition, I met co-founders Dr Yi Luo and Dr Johnny Huang.

What problem is your technology solution trying to solve and how does it work?

Yi: With the expansion of the IoT industry, billions of IoT sensors are expected to be deployed for smart buildings and cities, healthcare, and industrial IoT applications. Currently, IoT sensors are largely battery powered, which has important implications: 1) battery manufacturing creates high carbon emissions, 2) single-use batteries generate large amounts of waste chemicals and 3) battery replacement is labor intensive and costly for commercial applications, and inconvenient for consumers. Addressing battery addiction creates benefits for the environment, as well as global adoption of IoT. This was our motivation to develop an RF collector based on patented technologies, which works like a solar panel, for the broadcast of ambient RF signals that can wirelessly power IoT sensors without a battery.

Johnny: The scale of IoT applications requires a clean, energy efficient solution, and we have a way to achieve this through RF harvesting to power IoT sensors. When you think of the cell towers and Wi-Fi routers that surround us, it is understood that they allow internet connectivity, but you may not realize all the signals, in the form of electromagnetic waves, that they produce. . These towers and routers emit waves of about 10 billion kWh of energy per year in the United States, which is about 10% of the energy generated by solar panels, and most of the wasted waves can be recovered. Energy harvesting is a relatively new concept, and we are focused on advancing its commercial deployment.

With the widespread deployment of 5G networks in the high frequency band (above 20 to 30 GHz, i.e. in the millimeter wave band), this means that up to a hundred times more RF energy can be retrieved or transmitted wirelessly over the air. This summer, we completed our prototype harvester chip for mm-Wave, and it can be used with smart RF power sources, such as beamforming with 5G towers and Wi-Fi routers, to achieve high efficiency wireless power transmission.

What prompted you to develop this solution?

Yi: Inspiration came from my research at Carnegie Mellon University focusing on ultra-high speed semiconductor devices. With the discovery of quantum ballistic transport physics and new nanofabrication technologies, we have invented an ultra-fast metal-semiconductor-metal (MSM) diode, which can efficiently convert RF signals into useful direct current at high power levels. ambient with a frequency of up to terahertz. and increase harvest efficiency 100 times in some applications. Teratonix has obtained patents for the MSM diode, which is the foundation of our RF energy harvesting technology. In addition to being inspired by this revolutionary technology, we are also strongly motivated by the environmental well-being of being less dependent on the battery and the benefits of connecting people and things when you think about the full expansion of the battery. ‘IoT in the place where you live, play and work.

How will winning an award at the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge help you move your business forward?

Johnny: Our current goal is to prove the commercial viability of our RF harvesting chip. This means building, testing and improving the design of our prototypes, and the cash prize will support those efforts. We believe our technology is unique, but as a small business we depend on the biggest players in the ecosystem to validate our vision and partner up to accelerate the path to commercial deployment. Hopefully, Cisco’s recognition allows for greater visibility and partnership opportunities with IoT sensor manufacturers, IoT chipset integrators, 5G service providers and Wi-Fi router manufacturers, as well as capital investors to take our technology to the next level. We also hope to partner with Cisco IoT Business Units and explore Cisco resources for start-ups, as with Cisco LaunchPad program.

How has the global pandemic affected your work?

Johnny: As a hardware company, we depend on work in the lab and with manufacturing partners. Thus, our chip development operations were suspended for almost a year and only resumed last spring. Some of our industrial IoT partners have been strongly impacted by the pandemic which has delayed our scheduled pilots.

On the positive side, the pandemic is accelerating the development and adoption of IoT sensors, especially in remote monitoring of the environment and equipment for buildings and facilities, asset tracking for food security. shipping of drugs and contact tracing. As a result, interest in Teratonix’s solution increases.

Why did you decide to start your own social business rather than working for a business?

Johnny: Yi and I have come full circle after studying together for our PhD. program at Columbia University and now realizing the vision of one day being a major contributor to IoT technology. As Steve Jobs said in his Opening speech at Stanford, “You can’t impatiently connect the dots; you can only connect them by looking back. So you have to be confident that the dots will somehow connect in your future. I really believe there are a lot of points lining up in our favor, and although this is a high risk business, we are on the verge of being ready for commercial deployment.

What advice do you give to other social entrepreneurs?

Johnny: Start-ups have a high failure rate, and the rate can be even higher for those striving to make a social impact. As a social entrepreneur, you need to balance the commercial success of your business with your social motivations. It’s wonderful to know that you are doing something meaningful that is bigger than yourself, but you have to be realistic about what it takes to make a successful business. An invaluable investment, especially at the start, is in a credible partner who can validate your business model, help you assess risks and assess the feasibility of your solution. Every business is going to have its ups and downs, but there is so much to learn from others who have tried and come your way.

Yi: You may have a journey or use case in mind for your solution or technology, but other opportunities may arise along the way. It is important to be open to other paths that may be different from the one you originally started, while continuing to motivate yourself from the greatest potential that has served as inspiration for your business.

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