Editor's Note: This story was originally printed in the January 2008 issue of Scientific American. We're reposting it because of new research out today by author Zhong Lin Wang.
The watchmaker in the 1920s who devised the self-winding wristwatch was on to a great idea: mechanically harvesting energy from the wearer’s moving arm and putting it to work rewinding the watch spring.
Today we are beginning to create extremely small energy harvesters that can supply electrical power to the tiny world of nanoscale devices, where things are measured in billionths of a meter. We call these power plants nanogenerators. The ability to make power on a minuscule scale allows us to think of implantable biosensors that can continuously monitor a patient’s blood glucose level, or autonomous strain sensors for structures such as bridges, or environmental sensors for detecting toxins—all running without the need for replacement batteries. Energy sources are desperately needed for nanorobotics, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), homeland security and even portable personal electronics. It is hard to imagine all the uses such infinitesimal generators may eventually find.
Researchers are pursuing several different routes toward power generation on a miniature scale. Options include exploiting random vibrations or motions (such as those near a roadway), temperature gradients (for example, ground temperature is fairly constant several meters below the surface), biochemistry, and external energy sources such as ultrasonic waves or even audible noises.
A key advantage of nanodevices and nano-systems is that they usually operate at a very low power level, in the range of nanowatts to microwatts, bringing nanogenerators for powering them into the realm of the possible. Just think of the potential power sources a human body provides: mechanical energy, heat energy, vibration energy, chemical energy (in the form of glucose) and the hydraulic energy of the circulatory system. Converted into electricity, just a small fraction of this energy could be sufficient to power many types of small devices.
Power to the Tiny
Work on power generation for small devices has moved quickly since the late 1990s, when the proliferation of portable electronic gadgets attracted researchers to the problem of finding new ways to power them. Experimenters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, for example, devised an energy-scavenging shoe using the piezoelectric effect, whereby certain crystalline materials produce a voltage when mechanically stressed. But the difficulty of producing useful amounts of power soon drove scientists to explore generators that could meet the much smaller electrical power needs of MEMS. These silicon-based devices, whose dimensions are measured in microns (millionths of a meter) to millimeters (thousandths of a meter), have found many uses, including as accelerometers for automobile air-bag systems and as ink-jet printer nozzles. Biology and chemistry also offer opportunities for producing power.
In recent years, scientists have built small vibration- based generators using both piezoelectric and electromagnetic transducers. The electro-magnetic microgenerator utilizes a moving magnet or coil for inducing an alternating electric current in a circuit. Although some microgenerators have been fabricated at the scale of MEMS, the technology tends to require structures ranging from one to 75 cubic centimeters, which work in vibration ranges from 50 hertz (cycles per second) to five kilohertz. A typical piezoelectric vibration-based generator uses a two-layered beam of lead zirconium titanate, with a mass located at its unsupported end, somewhat like a swimmer poised at the end of a diving board. When gravity causes the beam to bend downward, the upper piezoelectric layer is under tensile strain and the lower layer is under compressive strain. The result is a positive and negative voltage across the beam. As the mass oscillates back and forth, an alternating voltage is created. But because this energy generator is relatively large, gravity is important in driving its oscillating mass.