The dream system for monitoring a person’s biometric data is a network of always-on sensors distributed around the body, generating all sorts of useful data ranging from vital signs to the levels of different compounds in the blood or tissues. One of the keys to such a system would be sensors that could harvest enough energy from their surroundings that they would not need batteries that would have to be recharged or replaced. Researchers at the University of Virginia (UVA) are taking a giant step in this direction by developing a tiny chip.
They have created a System-on-Chip (SoC) design that incorporates all the processing power needed to read data from sensors and then transmit that information wirelessly to a controller, such as a smartphone, that can forward it on to the Cloud for storage, analysis, and reporting. The chip has ultra-low-power requirements, and also includes the ability to generate the electricity it needs from motion, heat, and light. It also can regulate the flow of power from these intermittent sources so that it can operate around the clock. All of this is packed into a tiny chip just 4 mm on a side: just a bit more than one tenth of an inch.
The project is part of UVA’s partnership with the ASSIST Center (Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies) that has its headquarters at North Carolina State University. Many other universities are also partners in the program that receives funding from the National Science Foundation.