Converting Wi-Fi signals to electricity with new 2D materials

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Device made from flexible, inexpensive materials could power large-area electronics, wearables, medical devices, and more

Imagine a world where smartphones, laptops, wearables, and other electronics are powered without batteries. Researchers from MIT and elsewhere have taken a step in that direction, with the first fully flexible device that can convert energy from Wi-Fi signals into electricity that could power electronics.

Devices that convert AC electromagnetic waves into DC electricity are known as “rectennas.” The researchers demonstrate a new kind of rectenna, described in a study appearing in Nature, that uses a flexible radio-frequency (RF) antenna that captures electromagnetic waves — including those carrying Wi-Fi — as AC waveforms.

The antenna is then connected to a novel device made out of a two-dimensional semiconductor just a few atoms thick. The AC signal travels into the semiconductor, which converts it into a DC voltage that could be used to power electronic circuits or recharge batteries.

In this way, the battery-free device passively captures and transforms ubiquitous Wi-Fi signals into useful DC power. Moreover, the device is flexible and can be fabricated in a roll-to-roll process to cover very large areas.

“What if we could develop electronic systems that we wrap around a bridge or cover an entire highway, or the walls of our office and bring electronic intelligence to everything around us? How do you provide energy for those electronics?” says paper co-author Tomás Palacios, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of the MIT/MTL Center for Graphene Devices and 2D Systems in the Microsystems Technology Laboratories. “We have come up with a new way to power the electronics systems of the future — by harvesting Wi-Fi energy in a way that’s easily integrated in large areas — to bring intelligence to every object around us.”

Promising early applications for the proposed rectenna include powering flexible and wearable electronics, medical devices, and sensors for the “internet of things.” Flexible smartphones, for instance, are a hot new market for major tech firms. In experiments, the researchers’ device can produce about 40 microwatts of power when exposed to the typical power levels of Wi-Fi signals (around 150 microwatts). That’s more than enough power to light up a simple mobile display or silicon chips.

Another possible application is powering the data communications of implantable medical devices, says co-author Jesús Grajal, a researcher at the Technical University of Madrid. For example, researchers are beginning to develop pills that can be swallowed by patients and stream health data back to a computer for diagnostics.

“Ideally you don’t want to use batteries to power these systems, because if they leak lithium, the patient could die,” Grajal says. “It is much better to harvest energy from the environment to power up these small labs inside the body and communicate data to external computers.”

All rectennas rely on a component known as a “rectifier,” which converts the AC input signal into DC power. Traditional rectennas use either silicon or gallium arsenide for the rectifier. These materials can cover the Wi-Fi band, but they are rigid. And, although using these materials to fabricate small devices is relatively inexpensive, using them to cover vast areas, such as the surfaces of buildings and walls, would be cost-prohibitive. Researchers have been trying to fix these problems for a long time. But the few flexible rectennas reported so far operate at low frequencies and can’t capture and convert signals in gigahertz frequencies, where most of the relevant cell phone and Wi-Fi signals are.