Deal to save smart meters from landfill

Feature articles |
By Nick Flaherty

Distributor Avnet Abacus has signed a deal with TWTG in Rotterdam to prevent the disposal of millions of smart meters into landfill.

The deal sees battery technology from Nichicon integrated into a new wireless communications module to update smart meters from 2G GPRS to 4G.

The viability of existing smart meters which send data via the 2G GPRS data protocol is in doubt as the 2G networks are switched off. This shutdown of older network technologies creates a major problem for utility companies which need to move the meters to 3G and 4G and eventually 5G networks, as well as other technologies such as LPWAN, including LTE Cat-M1, NB-IoT and LoRa.

2G switch-off

One leading European provider using 1.5m smart meters turned to TWTG to design a retrofit module to work with their installed base of smart meters and communicate via LTE-M.

A key pathway to the new module was use of the smart meter’s P1 access port – used for various purposes from firmware upgrades to device monitoring. However, the port offers a small output of approximately 5mA, which is not enough to send a message via 4G.

This means the design needs a small energy storage device to acquire energy from the port, store it and deliver enough power to the module to send data via LTE-M.

Avnet Abacus was called in to help source the energy storage device and provide support for the new module’s design. Options considered included a supercapacitor, but the lower energy density meant it would have been too large for the required compact design.

Tiny battery

It was also crucial that the battery would last for 10 to 15 years, being charged and discharged without failure over for an extended period and exceeding national government regulations, so the module could potentially be deployed across Europe.

Avnet Abacus came up with the solution in the form of an innovative battery from Nichicon, which had developed a battery for use in a stylus pen for a consumer-market mobile phone.

Connecting via Bluetooth, the Nichicon SLB series battery could be charged quickly via wireless charging within a few minutes, plus it was built to last thousands of charge/discharge cycles.

LPWAN module 

The SLB battery was able to accumulate enough charge from the 5mA P1 output to power a single data message per day. In addition to the battery, the prototype retrofit module included a multi-mode LPWAN module supporting LTE Cat-M1, Kyocera-AVX antenna, Molex connectors and a SIM card.

“We were really impressed with the support from the Avnet Abacus team and their innovative solution,” said Wesley Kerstens, Hardware Lead at TWTG. “Their help and the selection of the Nichicon battery technology in particular helped us meet all the necessary requirements in a simple and compact package.”

According to Marc Eichhorn, Product Manager Batteries at Avnet Abacus: “There is great potential to deploy Nichicon’s SLB series technology in a host of remote devices in IoT applications, or as a potential replacement for non-rechargeable batteries in next-generation product designs using energy harvesting from small solar cells. It also means that the battery is no longer the life-limiting factor of products.”



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