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Energy-autonomous sensor platforms developed at Bochum-based Zolitron Technology

Bochum-based Zolitron Technology supplies the world’s first and so far only energy and communication-autonomous cognitive sensor platform. Their goal is to provide comprehensive, scalable digitalisation of cities and municipalities, infrastructures and logistics. Developed directly in the Ruhr region, the system was awarded the Preis der Digitalen Wirtschaft digital economy prize for 2018 by North Rhine-Westphalia’s State Minister for Economic Affairs, Digitization, Innovation and Energy, Andreas Pinkwart (FDP). Dr. Arndt Zinn, Zolitron’s managing director, explains exactly what makes the new sensors so special, and where they can be used.

Mr. Zinn, Zolitron is in the business of half-full bottle banks and self-charging batteries. Bit of a strange combination, isn’t it?

We originate from Ruhr University Bochum where my colleagues and I researched energy production and storage. The widely discussed Internet of Things involves all sorts of devices with small sensors networked together. And they need power. So, we were wondering whether we could build a small system that produces and stores energy locally, and then releases it to one of these sensors. And that’s exactly what we’ve done. We call it micro energy harvesting.

 

Harvesting, as in harvesting crops?

Yes, that’s it. There’s energy everywhere – energy in the form of motion, heat, and light. These devices harvest the energy, meaning they make the energy usable in some way. But we don’t just supply the energy, we take it a step further: We’ve developed a specialised circuit to cache this rather low-level energy for later release in larger quantities.

So, this is how you power a sensor. But how do bottle banks come into the picture?

These batteries have a variety of applications. Our first project involved monitoring containers. Let’s take a bottle bank. There are sensors to turn this dumb bottle bank into a smart one. Once a bottle is thrown in, the sensors have self-learning algorithms to detect how full the bottle bank is just from the sound the bottle makes, and when the bottle bank needs to be emptied. The information is passed on over the internet. These ultrasonic measurements take a lot of power, which means they’re expensive. Changing the battery means towing off the bottle bank, replacing the battery, and towing the bottle bank back to where it belongs. Case in point: The Bochum Umweltservice environmental services company has 1,300 bottle banks with one sensor each dotted around the whole of Bochum. They constantly have to check whether the batteries are still working.

 

But your batteries charge themselves.

Right. We’ve tried using a good number of approaches. Energy might come in the form of motion, heat or light. Solar energy is the least expensive, so our sensors are not installed inside the bottle bank, but glued onto the outside so they can catch the sun’s rays.

Are your specialised sensors now ready for production?

We’re now in the roll-out phase in some cities in Germany and Austria. We made two hundred prototypes manually last year, and we’re concluding a contract with a manufacturer that can produce them automatically in large numbers. We’ll have the first large batch of more than two thousand units in April, and another ten thousand over the rest of the year.

 

Are there any other uses apart from bottle banks?

There are lots of application scenarios. GPS sensors can determine a location for example. This provides opportunities in logistics and tracking. Apart from that, our devices cost a tenth of the price of conventional sensors up to now. Another example: Magnetic field sensors register cars passing over them. Installed at the entrance, they can detect whether there are any parking spaces left. This used to involve large sensors that had to be mounted into the ground, which cost a lot of time and money. Our sensor is very flat, and simply lies on top of the tarmac. The installation is also maintenance-free.

 

How long does this kind of battery hold its charge?

The performance gradually decays after around ten years. Realistically speaking, others only last one to two years, and they need the roadbuilding services to come around and dig the things out. Ours don’t need that.

You’re from Ruhr University, so setting up in Bochum was an obvious choice. But are there other reasons for setting up in the Ruhr Metropolis?

I grew up near Bochum, and so did some of my other colleagues. Apart from that, the region has large environmental services companies, as well as major logistics companies headquartered in Essen and Bonn. Most of our customers by far are actually based in North Rhine-Westphalia, and mostly one to two hours’ drive away for me. This makes Bochum absolutely ideal as a location for our company.

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