by Marco Zuniga, TU Delft (Network and Embedded Systems Group)
In this information age, communication is central to our societies but it is taking a toll on the earth. As reported by Time Magazine, by 2013, we were already using 50% more energy moving bytes than moving airplanes around the world. Our societies face a major challenge: How can we satisfy our ever-growing demand for communication but in a sustainable manner?
Any new technology we develop must leave no ecological footprint, or as Bill Gates puts it “we need to go all the way down to zero”. We are investigating a new wireless communication system that relies on a free, abundant and natural resource: sunlight. Our concept operates in a way similar to using a mirror to send morse codes via reflections. We cover objects with smart materials to obtain similar changes in reflections, but without you noticing them.
Sample Application. You are a tourist visiting Amsterdam and you want to know about events in the city, but you don’t want to use your data plan (no radios). You go to any tram or bus station. The glass panels in the stations are smart materials. Sunlight impinges on the glass, and the glass’ surface either blocks or lets light pass through to send information bits. These changes in reflection are so fast that your eyes will not perceive them, you will only see a tilted glass. You simply get your phone out, point it towards the direction of the glass panel and the light sensor in your phone gets the information by decoding the energy bits reflected by the panel.
Our vision for a future society is to cover our bus stops, buildings, cars, or any other object, with smart materials. In that way, we could transform all the ‘dead’ surfaces in our cities into elements that can communicate with each other in an eco-friendly manner. A world that communicates through natural light, that’s the goal!
What drives you?
A constant desire to progress and the hope that some of my research work may contribute meaningfully to expanding knowledge.
Why should the delegate attend your presentation?
We are working on a radically new wireless communication system. We use light for communication, but we do not require LEDs, we use sunlight directly.
What emerging technologies/trends do you see as having the greatest potential in the short and long run?
In the long run, the greatest potential is for technologies that will have zero-energy cost. That is technologies that can operate solely with energy harvested from the surrounding environment.
What kind of impact do you expect them to have?
The impact for zero-energy technologies should be similar to the effect that solar panels, and other eco-friendly solutions, are having on the generation of energy. Wouldn’t it be nice if you would not need to charge your phone or laptop? Imagine if they could operate solely by harvesting energy from light and, at the same time, use that natural resource for communication.
What are the barriers that might stand in the way?
We still need more research to develop new smart materials and to reduce their manufacturing costs. We also need to develop new energy-efficient algorithms and protocols.
About Marco Zuniga
Marco obtained his Ph.D. and MSc in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California (USA), and his BSc in Electronics Engineering from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Before his appointment at TU Delft, he was a member of the research staff at Xerox Research Labs; an IRCSET fellow at the National University of Ireland, Galway; and a senior researcher at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.
Marco’s research interests are in the areas of the Internet of Things, Embedded Networks and Mobile Computing. His work has received two Best Paper Awards (IEEE MASS 2015 and ExtremeCom 2013), four Best Paper Runner-ups (ACM CoNEXT 2016, IEEE SenseApp 2015, ACM/IEEE IPSN 2014, ACM/IEEE IPSN 2011), and an Accenture Innovation Award in 2017.