Harvesting Own Energy can Boost Battery

Wednesday, April 6, 2011 @ 07:04 PM gHale

“Wearable energy harvesters” may soon be able to convert movement from humans into battery power.

A class of variable capacitor generators known as dielectric elastomer generators (DEGs) has potential for wearable energy harvesting, said researchers at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute’s Biomimetics Lab in New Zealand, who added they believe DEGs may enable light, soft, form-fitting, silent energy harvesters with excellent mechanical properties that match human muscle.

This is a schematic of the physical layout of the soft generator.

This is a schematic of the physical layout of the soft generator.

“Imagine soft generators that produce energy by flexing and stretching as they ride ocean waves or sway in the breeze like a tree,” said Thomas McKay, a Ph.D. candidate working on soft generator research at the Biomimetics Lab. “We’ve developed a low-cost power generator with an unprecedented combination of softness, flexibility, and low mass. These characteristics provide an opportunity to harvest energy from environmental sources with much greater simplicity than previously possible.”

Dielectric elastomers, often referred to as artificial muscles, are stretchy materials capable of producing energy when deformed. In the past, artificial muscle generators required bulky, rigid, and expensive external electronics.

“Our team eliminated the need for this external circuitry by integrating flexible electronics — dielectric elastomer switches — directly onto the artificial muscles themselves. One of the most exciting features of the generator is that it’s so simple; it simply consists of rubber membranes and carbon grease mounted in a frame,” McKay said.

McKay is working to create soft dexterous machines that comfortably interface with living creatures and nature in general. The soft generator is another step toward fully soft devices; it could potentially incorporate into clothing and harvest electricity from human movement. When this happens, worrying about the battery powering your cell phone or other portable electronics dying on you will become a thing of the past. And as an added bonus, this should help keep batteries out of landfills.

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