Millions of people are constantly on the go; cellphones in hand continuously at work communicating their every thought and need to the world. I am not talking about the Motorola Razr with its 176 x 220 pixels that many of us were using 5 years ago, but rather the innovative smartphones which have become extensions of our selves; as if somehow evolution had transformed our ears into antennas therefore creating a sixth sense. The battery level of their devices always on their minds, hoping it’ll last just long enough to get it them to the next charging outlet.
Now imagine yourself on a bus rushing home from work to charge your phone and you overhear me talking about the possibility my new phone may no longer be powered by a battery. You would be convinced the notion was nonsense and until recently you would’ve been right. The knowhow to create such a cellphone maybe just around the corner. This technology is called “Nanogenerators” and it’s coming your way faster than you can imagine. Dr. Zhong Lin Wang; a world leader in ZnO nanostructure research has developed minuscule nanogenerators that use body movements and muscle stretching to generate electricity. This breakthrough may forever change the way we power the electronic devices we use at home or for work. Simple acts such as walking, running or the beat of our hearts could generate enough power to keep run the smartphone or tablet in your bag. Even the wind blowing would be captured by the sensors and converted to energy. His theory seemed too far away to fully consider, yet Dr. Zhong expects his nanogenerators to be available in retail devices within 5 years.
If you’re having a hard time understanding how this works then simply picture zinc oxide wires 10 times thinner than one strand of hair, wrapped in a plastic substrate with two ends bonded that generates electricity when stretched, twisted or senses any mechanical stress. The nanogenerators create current by bending and then releasing zinc oxide nanowires, which is both piezoelectric and semiconducting. “There is a lot of mechanical energy available in our environment,” said Zhong Lin Wang. “Our nanogenerators can convert this mechanical energy to electrical energy. This could potentially open up a lot of possibilities for the future of nanotechnology.”
The next thing researchers admit they need to work on is maximizing the amount of power that can be generated using this technology. A lot still needs to be done before we can charge any device with a brisk walk in the park, but Wang estimates that we would be able to convert 30% of any mechanical input into electrical energy.
“Our bodies are good at converting chemical energy from glucose into the mechanical energy of our muscles,” Wang noted. “These nanogenerators can take that mechanical energy and convert it to electrical energy for powering devices inside the body”. I’ve witnessed friends accidentally slamming into glass doors while searching for a cellphone signal; Imagining these same people running in circles in a desperate attempt to keep their iPhone alive definitely does not sound like nonsense to me.