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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

January 17, 2012 at 10:34 AM

CES 2012: Powering gadgets with body heat

LAS VEGAS — Some companies spend millions building huge booths and producing glitzy stage shows for the Consumer Electronics Show.

Perpetua, a little energy-device company in Corvallis, Ore., sent Jerry Wiant with a laptop and a few gadgets to set on a table.

That’s all it took to hook me, though.

Wiant’s demonstration of “energy harvesting” gizmos was one of the most intriguing things I saw at the massive event last week.

Maybe that’s because the bigger companies were holding back this year, making it hard to find radically new products.

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There were lots of improvements on display — brighter TVs, thinner computers and faster memory cards — but not many huge breakthroughs apparent on the show floor.

The annual gadget fest suggests that every year we should expect waves of exciting new products, but in reality the cycles of research, development and technological change are longer, and some years bring more iteration than innovation to Las Vegas.

Still, there were plenty of exciting new products and some far-out creations that left me excited about what’s still around the corner.

Like Perpetua’s technology for powering gadgets with body heat instead of batteries.

Drawing on research from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Perpetua developed thermoelectric devices that convert temperature differences in dissimilar metals into electricity.

Since 2005 the company has been selling these energy-harvesting systems for industrial use, where they may be attached to warm pipes to power sensor systems, for instance. A number of employees came to the company from Hewlett-Packard’s Corvallis printer operation, and Perpetua’s devices are built in a way similar to HP’s inkjet hardware.

Now Perpetua is working on smaller, wearable versions that generate electricity just from a person’s body heat. The National Science Foundation and Department of Homeland Security are helping fund the research. The company also partnered with Texas Instruments to add wireless connectivity to the devices.

Within a few years, Perpetua’s wearable devices could be used to power consumer gadgets, starting with fitness sensors and medical devices.

To show the concept at CES, Wiant had a small thermoelectric generator connected to a digital watch. Pressing your finger on the generator provided enough heat to power the device. Also on display was a prototype armband.

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Wiant’s show booth — really just a table with a display board — was in a far corner dedicated to innovative startups.

I didn’t realize Wiant’s company was just down the road until we started talking. Then I also found out that the company was funded partly from the proceeds of a startup — Internet marketing company TrafficLeader — that Wiant sold to Seattle’s Marchex in 2003. He was an early investor in Perpetua and became its vice president of marketing in 2008.

Friday, as he packed up, Wiant said he didn’t have much time to tour the show because he was busy manning the booth.

But he said it was worthwhile, and Perpetua drew a lot of interest from potential business partners.

“I have a stack of cards about 20 deep that are serious opportunities, which is really good,” he said.

If one or two of those contacts come forward with development funding, he said, Perpetua could release the wearable thermoelectric products in 2013 or 2014.

Maybe Wiant will be back in Vegas then with a bigger booth. It shouldn’t be hard to miss — if it can harvest the energy of 150,000 conventioneers looking for the next big thing.

Comments | More in | Topics: batteries, CES, CES 2012

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