Marco De Luca and Anton Köck have been interviewed by the Austrian on-line magazine JUST, where they have explained the potential of nanosensors for environmental monitoring and the vision of the project FOXES.
Below an English translation of the original article (in German)
Nanotechnology to monitor buildings and the environment
Scientists at the Materials Center Leoben MCL are working on nanosensors for building management and environmental monitoring. The aim of their research is to gain more efficient control of the sensors and of their supply with energy.
“We use our sensors to measure various pollutants in the room air,” explains Anton Köck, group leader for Sensor Solutions at MCL. “These can be solvents that evaporate from furniture or wall paints, but also CO2 in poorly ventilated rooms or the deadly carbon monoxide that can escape from defective gas boilers. In environmental monitoring, the nanosensors could be placed along roads to detect particulate, ozone pollution or nitrogen oxide levels. Nanosensors could allow to realize a close-meshed, area-wide measurement system that works in real time,” says Köck.
So far, the MCL has been primarily concerned with developing the sensor technology itself. New materials are being used to increase the performance of the sensors. Nanowires, nanoparticles and graphene are among them. Now, research is also moving in the direction of powering the nanosensors. Marco Deluca, Key Scientist for Sensor Solutions, is working on ceramic supercapacitors. “They have the advantage of being able to absorb and also release a lot of energy quickly.” Because the sensors have to work 24 hours a day, he says, the supercapacitors are needed to store electricity generated from solar energy to power the sensor systems. Deluca is convinced that “no one wants to keep changing batteries for sensors like this.”
What sucks up energy in environmental sensors are the data transmission and the activation energy that nanosensors require in order to be able to measure certain environmental parameters at all. “Currently, environmental sensors require a temperature of 350 degrees Celsius to be able to work,” Deluca explains. “This is generated with a micro-heating plate, but it consumes a relatively large amount of electricity”, he says. “Together with our partners from the University of Barcelona, we are exploring approaches to provide the initial energy for the sensors using an LED. This approach will save a lot of energy, and will also have the advantage that you can’t burn your fingers on the hot sensor,” grins the scientist.
Data transmission via radio, Bluetooth or WiFi also consumes a relatively large amount of energy. “If we calculate directly in the sensor system which data is actually valuable and then only send that, we can save a large part of the energy,” Köck describes. That’s why AI is needed for intelligent data evaluation, he adds. “It will make our sensors more efficient.”
And finally, the energy density in the supercapacitors also need to be increased. This can be achieved through optimized material chemistry as well as material structure and thin-film technology. Marco Deluca has received an ERC Consolidator Grant to work on this topic (ERC project CITRES, www.erc-citres.eu), which will run until 2024. “ERC projects of this kind are extremely prestigious in the research world, and we are very pleased to have been given this opportunity,” says Köck.
The researchers at MCL are also involved in the “FOXES” project (FET-PROACTIVE project 951774, www.foxes-project.eu), in which a “power cube” is being developed. “This involves a combination of the latest generation of solar cells with a supercapacitor and the necessary control technology,” the two scientists report. “FOXES” will also run until 2024, and will end with the pilot test of a network of autonomous sensor nodes in the urban environment of Barcelona.
Nanosensors for environmental monitoring are not yet used in Austria, unlike in cities like Copenhagen in Denmark and Brussels in Belgium. “In this country, we still rely on clunky measuring stations and measuring carts, but these can only ever provide a snapshot. Our systems, on the other hand, collect data around the clock and can be installed throughout the country,” says Köck. The microelectronics expert estimates that it will be another five years before the system is used more widely in Austria.
The costs would basically be manageable, Deluca and Köck believe. At the moment, it is still difficult to estimate the exact manufacturing costs, because there is no industrial production of the sensors yet. “When the time comes, I assume that they will be similarly low as in the production of other electronic components,” assures Deluca. A sensor system for private households would then probably be available – depending on the design – for just a few euros. This would then simply transfer its data from the living spaces to the user’s cell phone.
Of course, measuring building data is not an end in itself. The use of nanosensors has potential above all in terms of energy consumption. Says Köck, “Calculations show that intelligent sensors that supply data to building technology control systems can save up to 25 percent of the energy required for heating and cooling.”
MCL as the sponsor of the IC-MPPE competence center is funded by the Federal Ministries BMK and BMDW as well as by the Provinces of Styria, Upper Austria and Tyrol – in the COMET program of the FFG. The developments presented here were additionally achieved within the framework of EU funding programs.
Translation of the article originally published on JUST.