Solar to pioneer the future of wireless

27th November 2015
Joe Bush

A technology developed by a research team at the University of Edinburgh’s Li-Fi R&D Centre, led by Professor Harald Haas, is set to bring significant commercial and social benefits to millions of people across the world. The new form of wireless data communication uses solar energy to create power for Li-Fi, which will be particularly useful in rural communities and the developing world that do not have existing infrastructures for electric power, the internet and Wi-Fi access.

Light is used to transmit data, whilst the solar panel receives high speed data which, effectively, gives the solar panel the means to provide energy for Li-Fi technology and act as a broadband receiver for Li-Fi.

At this year’s TED Global 2015 event in London, Professor Haas demonstrated how Li-Fi can be used with solar cells to receive data, thus bringing into sharp focus how the likes of solar panels on houses or other objects such as smart watches, and in fact all future internet of Things (IoT) devices can absorb power and receive data at the same time. With the help of this technology, smart watches could be powered and connected to the internet through light.

The prototype used in the demonstration was built in a collaborative partnership between the University of Edinburgh’s Li-Fi R&D Centre and pureLiFi, a University of Edinburgh spin-out company. Edinburgh Research & Innovation (ERI), the commercialisation arm of the University of Edinburgh, is now looking for industrial partners to work with the university’s Li-Fi R&D Centre to develop the technology for commercial use.

Tom Higgison, ERI’s IP Projects Manager commented, “This University of Edinburgh technology combines light-based data communications, or ‘Li-Fi’, with energy harvesting, to create an exciting set of applications not previously anticipated including in rural broadband access, smart city networks, and the internet of things. The wider opportunity is to transform global communications by speeding up the process of bringing internet and other data communication functionality to remote and poorer regions in a way not previously thought achievable due to lack of infrastructure and investment.”

During his talk at TED Global 2015, Haas stressed that over four billion people worldwide do not have access to the internet and with little energy infrastructure in developing countries to support traditional broadband and Wi-Fi, solar energy can bring transformational change to this situation.

Haas commented, “The potential expansion to the internet is massive and my aspiration is that this broadband solar panel receiver technology for Li-Fi will help solve the challenges of the digital divide throughout the world, and catalyse the uptake of the IoT as connectivity and battery-free power supplies are essential if we want to connect a trillion objects to the internet.”

The research carried out by the University of Edinburgh Li-Fi R&D Centre focuses on the integration of power gathering and data reception at solar panels and turning them into communication devices. In effect, solar cells within the panel become communications nodes that receive high bandwidth data whilst also providing electrical power for the nodes’ operation.

These self powered nodes will remove a major barrier to data communication growth. In conventional optical wireless communications, the steady background component of the received optical signal is usually discarded, but can instead be used to directly power to the receiving terminal.

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