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Start-up rolls out `energy harvesters'

CAMBRIDGE -- Hoping to boost the fledgling business of creating low-powered networks of industrial sensors and devices, a Kendall Square start-up is rolling out a system that uses no batteries -- just "energy harvesters" that can convert the vibrations of machinery and air-conditioning systems into enough electricty to transmit small bursts of data.

The development comes as a handful of companies in the emerging market are fighting to show they have developed not just an interesting science project, but a potentially revolutionary technology. Its uses could cover everything from building temperature control and fire protection to automated reading of water and electric meters and management of industrial processes and warehouse operations.

Industry analysts see "machine to machine" networking on the cusp of becoming a multibillion-dollar industry, once businesses have faith the systems work reliably and can really help them cut costs.

Millennial Net, a 22-person company with roots in Massachusetts Institute of Technology research, has teamed up with an even smaller start-up called Ferro Solutions based in Roslindale. Using research grants from the US Navy, Ferro has developed a system that can convert low-level vibrations into a source of 3-volt electrical energy. It uses a device the size of a small fruit can called an energy harvester.

While the technology may sound too good to be true, the principle has begun showing up in consumer products such as the $20 Forever Flashlight made by Excalibur Electronics of Boca Raton, Fla., which produces up to five minutes of light after a user shakes the device for 30 seconds or so to charge it up.

Much of the excitement and attention in the world of networked communications today focuses on super-high-capacity wireless and optical systems shooting megabits and gigabits of data each second. Companies like Millennial Net, Boston-based Ember, and Dust Inc. of Berkeley, Calif., are focusing on the other end of the spectrum: on tiny devices that transmit a very simple digital message 30 to 100 feet.

Because they use so little power and may need to send a message only once a day containing just a few hundred bits of digital data, these devices can operate for five to 10 years before wearing out a camera button battery. Ember's devices, and Millennial's "i-Beans" -- typically the size of a postage stamp or coin -- have enough software intelligence built in to organize themselves into a "mesh" network in which data hops from device to device back to a small collection device or router.

Andrew May, who became Millennial's CEO two months ago after holding top posts at big networking equipment makers Paradyne and 3Com, said being able to produce devices that never need to have batteries changed could be a crucial breakthrough in lowering the cost and complexity of low-power networks. "It's a whole new era now when you are getting devices to be networked that never have been," May said. "And when the power budget is zero, that spawns creativity at its finest. Our biggest job really is to find the right early adopters."

Millennial has begun trial deployments with industrial-products and meter-reading companies, and hopes to begin announcing paying customers next year.

Kevin O'Handley, Ferro's business development director, said that roughly one hour's worth of vibrations of a typical home window AC unit could generate enough electricity through the harvester to power an i-Bean transmitting a data packet once every 20 seconds for a day.

Some of the ways the company envisions the devices being used include fully automated wireless reporting of water and electricity usage back to utility companies from meters that could use a Ferro device to produce energy from the flow of water through a valve or a spinning electric meter dial. (Utilities including NStar now use wireless meter reading that requires a technician to drive around "pinging" meters to send a report to a computer in the van.) Other examples include building energy management and security through sensors attached to thermostats, and emergency exits that use energy from vibrating heat AC ducts.

Ian Barkin, an analyst specializing in networked devices with FocalPoint Group LLC, said, "The biggest problem in this space is battery life and power use in general. If vibrations alone are going to power these things, that could have a pretty extraordinary impact on solving one of the biggest problems, power consumption."

Barkin said, however, that "one of the pieces of marketing fluff around this technology generally is that it's a panacea to all inefficiency, and it's not. From the buyer's side, one of the main things is justifying the expense.

"It isn't a technology sale," he said. "This isn't going to take off because you talk about the technological brilliance of low-power networking. It's because you solve a problem. There needs to be a clear return on investment."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

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