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.