Tiny generators could pave way for self-charging smart tech, study says

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Self-charging smartwatches and health trackers could be a step closer following the development of tiny mechanical devices powered by movement, a study suggests.

The new mechanisms – which are described as ‘twice as powerful as similar existing devices’ – could offer an energy-efficient and sustainable alternative to batteries used in wearable technologies, researchers say.

Engineers from the University of Edinburgh have developed a technique to create versatile materials that generate electricity by harnessing energy produced by movement of the human body.

The method – devised by a team of three PhD students – creates so-called piezoelectric materials more quickly and efficiently than previous techniques, potentially making it easier to scale up production.

The team devised this new approach by tweaking the chemistry used in the production of ultrafine fibers of a material called PVDF, a versatile substance that generates electricity when pressure is applied to it.

PhD student Francisco Diaz Sanchez, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, who led the research, commented: “With ever-growing interest in the development of electronic wearable devices and implants, the generation of electronic waste and the limitations associated with battery capacity remain some of the key challenges to overcome.

“The materials we have developed bring us one step closer to the sustainable development of wearable electronics.”

By using a high-voltage power supply the researchers can make 3D sponge-like materials from the fibres, which are then cut into 1cm2 pieces, fitted with electrodes and wires, and encased in silicon.

Tests of the devices’ power output show they can produce 40 microwatts of electricity per square centimetre – twice as much as the most powerful type of existing piezoelectric generator.

Further development of the structures could extend the life of – or even replace – conventional batteries in wearable technologies, helping to reduce electronic waste and energy consumption, researchers say.

The materials could also have applications in the next generation of smart textiles and be woven into products such as motion-sensing clothes and t-shirts that monitor breathing and heart rate.

The study, published in the journal Nano Energy, was supported by Mexico’s National Council of Science and Technology.

More information about the ‘Sponge-like piezoelectric micro- and nanofiber structures for mechanical energy harvesting’-study is available on the University of Edinburgh website.