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Has Texas Instruments Cracked the Self-Powered Internet of Things?

By Anders Bylund - Jan 2, 2015 at 8:38AM

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Texas Instruments is introducing a power converter that can drive Internet of Things devices from ridiculously weak energy sources. Here's why this breakthrough matters.

The Internet of Things, also known as IoT, is all about putting sensors, computing power, and networking everywhere. Some places are very difficult to populate with silicon chips because there's no good way to supply the necessary electric power. That puts a damper on the growth of IoT devices. Why bother to build the data-crunching machinery if there's no reliable power source?

This familiar logo might soon be plastered all over a new category of devices. Source: Texas Instruments.

But Texas Instruments (TXN -3.63%) thinks it may have cracked this nut, according to a recent Computerworld article. The semiconductor veteran has whipped up a DC-to-DC voltage converter that can turn unusable voltage sources up to 11. That way, power sources no one considers using today can power IoT tools in very unusual places -- or improve battery life in more convenient spots.

Let's take the familiar example of a wristwatch. Traditional watches can be driven by battery-charging solar cells on the face, or even by motion-powered kinetic movement systems.

But you won't find modern smart watches collecting power from your wrist movements, and very rarely from solar cells. The power available in these sources just isn't strong enough to charge a lithium-ion battery. That's where Texas Instruments' voltage converter comes in.

Combining and amplifying the voltage from tiny power sources such as vibration harvesters or heat-powered thermocouples is not a new idea -- but making it happen on the extremely small scale of wearables and Internet of Things devices hasn't been done before.

Texas Instruments has done that work, preparing for a splashy presentation at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "They have the parts that will take this micro-power input and actually make some useful voltage and current that could power something," Gartner analyst Steve Ohr, who specializes in analog and power management semiconductors, told Computerworld .

Now, Texas Instruments isn't quite ready for prime time with these power amplifiers. Ohr also noted that more work needs to be done to develop better power-collecting tools. The current range of thermocouples, solar cells, and kinetic converters take a little too much space to be useful on the miniature scale that Texas Instruments envisions.

Even so, Gartner's Ohr envisions a $500 million global market for today's crude micro-power energy collection devices in 2018. Research breakthroughs could accelerate the pace of growth even further -- and Texas Instruments will be there to squeeze usable currents and voltages out of these suddenly ubiquitous power sources.

Beyond wearable devices, self-powered devices can come in handy in many different spaces. Here's how Texas Instruments itself envisions its target markets, from inside the human body to the grimy nooks and crannies of deep-sea oil rigs:

Source: Texas Instruments.

That is just one niche in a thriving Internet of Things ecosystem, of course. Other companies may dominate the low-power networking space, while others do battle over efficient sensors or logic processors.

Texas Instruments plays in many of these markets, but it never hurts to carve out a space for yourself in the early days of a new macro trend. And that's what TI is doing here.

Anders Bylund has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Gartner. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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