Comment »Posted on Friday 27 March 2009 at 6:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

It’s happened to everyone. You’re out and about, you’ve got some important calls to make, and you remove your phone from your pocket only to find the battery has run out. Thanks to new research, you might one day be able to give the phone a few shakes and be back in business.

Yesterday at the American Chemical Society’s 237th National Meeting, scientists described a technique that could do just that. Using nanotechnology, mechanical energy from the movement of the body could be converted into electrical energy for use in our power-hungry gadgets.

A schematic of a microfiber-nanowire hybrid nanogenerator, which could be used to generate electricty from movement.
A schematic of a microfiber-nanowire hybrid nanogenerator, which could be used to generate electricty from movement.

Using nanowires made from zinc oxide, low-frequency vibrations in the form of body movements, a beating heart, or even just the wind can be converted into electricity. The nanowires are piezoelectric, meaning they generate a current when bent or pressed. They can be grown on many different surfaces, including metal, ceramic, or even clothing fabrics.

Lead researcher Zhong Lin Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology worked with his team to develop the most effective way to convert movement into electricity, and found that zinc oxide nanowires fit the bill.

“This research will have a major impact on defense technology, environmental monitoring, biomedical sciences and even personal electronics,” he said.

“Quite simply, this technology can be used to generate energy under any circumstances as long as there is movement.”

Of course, this technology isn’t just going to be used to keep your mp3 player running. The research was part-funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as the military is keen to exploit the nanogenerators. For troops in the field, far from any energy sources, keeping a radio or other sensor equipment charged could mean the difference between life and death.

We won’t be seeing nanogenerators on the battlefield or in our pockets any time soon, however. Wang says the technology still needs work, particular in improving the power output of the generators. Until then, I recommended plugging in your phone before you go to bed!

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