By Anita Hamilton
It's no science-fiction fantasy. With wearable gadgets like Google's Project Glass on the horizon, all that's missing is an ultraportable power source that never needs recharging--like, say, your own body heat. A startup in Corvallis, Oregon, has developed a small chip that can turn body heat into electric energy, using the same technology found in solar panels. "We absorb the heat from your body, and that heat is funneled through a thermoelectric generator that converts it into electric power," says Perpetua Power Vice President Jerry Wiant. The result: a single, square-inch TEGwear chip generates enough power (up to 3
watts volts) to power anything from the accelerometer in your pedometer to the wireless headset for your smartphone.
The physics behind TEGwear is basic: Your body is always generating heat, even when you are asleep. And heat, regardless of the source, excites electrons. The flow of electrons, in turn, generates electricity. The tricky part is harnessing enough electricity to power a small device. Wiant says TEGwear will do just that, as long as the chip is either touching your skin or separated from it by only a thin layer of clothing.
Originally developed using technology licensed from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (a Department of Energy research lab in Richland, Washington), TEGwear-powered devices are still in development and won't hit the market until 2014. But this ultimate clean tech has a whole host of potential applications, from mobile health to national security. The company will demo the device on a new Swatch Touch watch at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month. In addition, it has a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a prototype wristband to track the whereabouts of people with Alzheimer's as well as funding from Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Division to power wearable devices used for surveillance operations. It's also partnered with several private companies to develop body-powered smartphone accessories (like headsets), health-monitoring devices (such as wearable heart-rate monitors), and military applications (like monitoring a soldier's vital signs and location while on a combat mission).
The added bonus of using body-powered devices? They eliminate the toxic waste generated by the heavy metals used in the billions of batteries we currently use--and toss--each year. In other words, your body heat is good, clean energy.
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.