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This Touchy Tech Could Abolish Wall Warts

Here’s how you may soon charge your phone by tapping on it rather than plugging it in. Thanks, science!

typing fingers

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Australian researchers have made a breakthrough in thin-film piezoelectric technology, working out a way to turn the chunky piezoelectric tech we’re already familiar with into super-thin layers that are actually much more useful. If your eyes glaze over at the merest mention of physics then at least read this: The tech could abolish wall wart power plugs forever.

Piezoelectrics are materials that do two things: If you squeeze them, they generate electricity; and if you put a voltage across them, they change shape. This makes them hugely useful and, in fact, you probably already use a tech that involves the effect several times a day without knowing so. These include devices such as cigarette lighters, and the ultrasonic sensors your car has to help you reverse park. The trick is it typically involves a bulky crystal, which limits how useful it can be.

That’s where the new research comes in. According to the RMIT University in Melbourne, nano-films of piezoelectric material PSZT are perfectly good at generating about 0.25mW of power from a gentle 5 milinewton push. That’s about 10 times less power than is needed to supply useful power to a device like a phone, but they’re confident it can be improved on–and cheaply too.

The upshot: How about a coating for your smartphone that keeps the battery topped up just from you prodding at its screen, or merely from the flexing it gets when it jiggles in your pocket or purse? How about a laptop that recovers a tiny bit of the energy you put into it when you type or push its trackpad, and uses it to recharge the battery? There’re other uses too, like pacemakers that’re actually powered by the pulsing of the blood they help motor around your body.

Essentially this tech could mean you rarely, perhaps never, need to plug in your portable devices to charge them. This means the virtual end of the wall wart, with all its associated electricity-wasting and landfill-polluting issues. It also means your phone may never run out of charge, and that could lead to a whole new generation of always-on devices that we can’t even imagine yet, as well as enabling super-slim phones that have smaller batteries in them because they don’t need to retain charge for as long.

[Image: Flickr user regi_a]

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Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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