7 September 2010

The Australian

An "energy scavenging" consortium in Japan aims to fill homes, offices and cars with electronic devices that can power themselves.

More than 20 of the country's largest companies want to improve Japan's ability to capture and exploit the “wasted” heat or vibration energy exuded by everything from throbbing air-conditioning systems and swaying railway carriages to body warmth and a brisk walk.

Even the movements of the most determined couch potato, according to Japanese researchers, could be converted into useful energy for powering a battery-free TV remote or video games controller.

The consortium's main focus is expected to be on producing self-powering sensors - devices that can independently collect and transmit information from places where it is either too dangerous, expensive or time-consuming to run power to or be constantly replacing batteries.

Given its huge importance to the Japanese economy, the car industry is also primed to be a heavy investor in the consortium. A high-end car has about 150 sensors feeding its onboard computer with readings of temperature, engine performance and whether the boot is open. They all need kilometres of heavy wiring and are drains on the main battery.

The “greening” of cars is expected to provide a growing market for scavenging devices as cars themselves are such reckless wasters of precisely the heat and vibration energy that the devices feed on.

The exceptionally rare Japanese alliance will thrust bitter rivals such as Toyota and Honda into the same area of research, as corporate Japan scrambles to retain its reputation for cutting-edge technology.

The creation of the consortium highlights Japan's determination to play catch-up in a field where it has allowed Europe and the United States to take a clear lead. Some believe that it could be worth more than $4.4 billion a year by the end of the decade.

The world leader in vibration-capture technology is the British company Perpetuum, a spin-off of Southampton University. Its president and founder Roy Freeland, told The Times that the Japanese were keen to make up lost ground and that the area of hottest competition would be in self-powering, wireless telemetry devices.

“Energy harvesting can produce lots of gimmicks - shoes that light up when you walk on them, or a television remote that works when you shake it - but when it comes to real applications we're talking machine-to-machine, where harvested energy is going to be powering electronics in the kind of places where you don't really want to go to change a battery,” Mr Freeland said.

The 23-strong Japanese consortium includes Panasonic, Olympus, Asahi Kasei, Murata and Renesas and is being organised by NTT Data. The decision to collaborate, analysts say, is a panicky reaction to Japan's declining dominance of the electronic component market.

The climate of concern grew worse over the weekend when Foxconn Technology - the Taiwanese giant that assembles devices for Apple, Dell, Sony and many of the world's largest technology companies - cut its long-term growth forecasts by half and declared the “maturity” of the consumer electronics market.