A team of scientists has perfected the first practical nanoscale power generator, capable of generating useable electrical current from a mere squeeze of your fingers. In the future it’ll be able to draw power from your pulse.
The search for tiny power generator technology has slowly inched forward for years for good reason–there are a trillion medical and surveillance uses–not to mention countless consumer electronics applications– for a system that could grab electrical power from something nearby that’s moving even just a tiny bit. Imagine an implanted insulin pump, or a pacemaker that’s powered by the throbbing of the heart or blood vessels nearby (and then imagine the pacemaker powering the heart, which is powered by the pacemaker, and so on and so on….) and you see how useful such a system could be.
The trick used by Dr. Zhong Lin Wang’s team has been to utilize nanowires made of zinc oxide (ZnO). ZnO is a piezoelectric material–meaning it changes shape slightly when an electrical field is applied across it, or a current is generated when it’s flexed by an external force. By combining nanoscopic wires (each 500 times narrower than a human hair) of ZnO into a flexible bundle, the team found it could generate truly workable amounts of energy. The bundle is actually bonded to a flexible polymer slice, and in the experimental setup five pinky-nail-size nanogenerators were stacked up to create a power supply that can push out 1 micro Amp at about 3 volts. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was enough to power an LED and an LCD screen in a demonstration of the technology’s effectiveness.
Scientists are confident that down the road they can improve the system’s efficiency to the point it can generate useful power from a movement as subtle as a human pulse. This has obvious implications for electrical medical devices, but it also means that macro-scale versions of the system could generate some seriously useful power–enough that a strip hidden in your shoe could charge up your cell phone, for instance. Assuming the devices have a long life span, and the environmental costs of making them aren’t too high, then there are all sorts of eco-power potential benefits to boot.
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