Smart Devices Will Soon Tap Their Human Owners to Extract Energy

The future of batteries looks fleshy.

Ready for machines to harvest your power? It sounds like an idea ripped straight from The Matrix, but a team of researchers have devised a way to produce even more efficient triboelectric nanogenerators — miniature devices that can collect energy from human movement and sources like wind and wave. The discovery could pave the way for gadgets to power themselves by feeding off their human owners.

A team from the University of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute delves further into TENGs, a concept first outlined in a 2012 paper as a way of using the small amounts of electricity produced through everyday friction between objects to provide power. The findings were published in the journal Advanced Energy Materials on Tuesday and announced on Thursday.

“This technology is demonstrating the potential of powering low-power smart and wearable devices in near future,” a spokesperson for the university tells Inverse. “TENGs can be connected into clothing, or can even be constructed using textile fibers and fabrics, which can be used to capture power from our movement and power wearable and portable electronics and medical sensors etc. It might also be able to design these devices as artificial (secondary) skins, and use as a wearable power generator and a sensor.”

Batteries could find a new source of juice.

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“A world where energy is free and renewable is a cause that we are extremely passionate about here at the ATI (and the University of Surrey) — TENGs could play a major role in making this dream a reality,” Ravi Silva, director of the ATI, said in a statement. “TENGs are ideal for powering wearables, internet of things devices and self-powered electronic applications. This research puts the ATI in a world-leading position for designing optimized energy harvesters.”

Previous implementations have created generators that harness the power from bending a finger, producing 0.22 milliwatts per square centimeter, enough to light 48 red LEDs. The new research outlines instructions for how to build the most efficient TENGs, which the paper describes as offering “simple construction, low cost, high power output, and flexible and wearable properties.”

“The power output of the triboelectric nanogenerator (TENG) depends on a number of parameters such as its size, materials, shape and the motion input,” a spokesperson for the university tells Inverse. “Considering a basic device, anything ranging from 1 milli Watt to around 1 Watt or higher peak output power can be obtained under low frequency movements (<5 Hz). This can be significantly improved by adding nanomaterials and nanoparticles to triboelectric surfaces, as well as by using high frequency (rapid) movements to operate the TENG devices, such as the vibration of machines, motion of a vehicle etc.”

The research could pave the way for new implementations of the technology.

“I am extremely excited with this new study which redefines the way we understand energy harvesting,” Ishara Dharmasena, PhD student and lead scientist on the project, said in a statement. “The new tools developed here will help researchers all over the world to exploit the true potential of triboelectric nanogenerators, and to design optimised energy harvesting units for custom applications.

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