Ultrathin device harvests electricity from human motion
A new, ultrathin energy harvesting system developed at Vanderbilt University’s Nanomaterials and Energy Devices Laboratory has the potential to do just that. Based on battery technology and made from layers of black phosphorus that are only a few atoms thick, the new device generates small amounts of electricity when it is bent or pressed even at the extremely low frequencies characteristic of human motion.
“In the future, I expect that we will all become charging depots for our personal devices by pulling energy directly from our motions and the environment,” said Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Cary Pint, who directed the research.
“This is timely and exciting research given the growth of wearable devices such as exoskeletons and smart clothing, which could potentially benefit from Dr. Pint’s advances in materials and energy harvesting,” observed Karl Zelik, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt, an expert on the biomechanics of locomotion who did not participate in the device’s development.
Extracting usable energy from such low frequency motion has proven to be extremely challenging. For example, a number of research groups are developing energy harvesters based on piezoelectric materials that convert mechanical strain into electricity. However, these materials often work best at frequencies of more than 100 Hertz. This means that they don’t work for more than a tiny fraction of any human movement so they achieve limited efficiencies of less than 5-10 percent even under optimal conditions.
These observations led Pint’s team to reconstruct the battery with both positive and negative electrodes made from the same material. Although this prevents the device from storing energy, it allows it to fully exploit the voltage changes caused by bending and twisting and so produce significant amounts of electrical current in response to human motions.
In response, the Vanderbilt researchers decided to go as thin as possible by using black phosphorus nanosheets: A material has become the latest darling of the 2D materials research community because of its attractive electrical, optical and electrochemical properties.
One of the more futuristic applications of this technology might be electrified clothing. It could power clothes impregnated with liquid crystal displays that allow wearers to change colors and patterns with a swipe on their smartphone. “We are already measuring performance within the ballpark for the power requirement for a medium-sized low-power LCD display when scaling the performance to thickness and areas of the clothes we wear.” Pint said.
Pint also believes there are potential applications for their device beyond power systems. “When incorporated into clothing, our device can translate human motion into an electrical signal with high sensitivity that could provide a historical record of our movements. Or clothes that track our motions in three dimensions could be integrated with virtual reality technology. There are many directions that this could go.”
Vanderbilt doctoral students Rachel Carter, currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory, and Nicholas Galioto, an undergraduate mechanical engineering student also contributed to the research, which was supported by National Science Foundation grant CMMI 1400424 and Vanderbilt University’s discovery grant program.