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November 08, 2010

Energy Harvesting: Nanogenerators Grow Strong Enough to Power Small Conventional Electronic Devices by 2016

Compressing a nanogenerator between two fingers is enough to drive a liquid-crystal display. (Courtesy: Zhong Lin Wang)

New Georgia Institute of Technology nanogenerators rely on the piezoelectric effect seen in crystalline materials such as zinc oxide, in which an electric charge potential is created when structures made from the material are flexed or compressed. By capturing and combining the charges from millions of these nanoscale zinc oxide wires, Wang and his research team can produce as much as three volts – and up to 300 nanoamps.
Mechanical energy comes from compressing a nanogenerator between two fingers, but it could also come from a heartbeat, the pounding of a hiker’s shoe on a trail, the rustling of a shirt, or the vibration of a heavy machine. While these nanogenerators will never produce large amounts of electricity for conventional purposes, they could be used to power nanoscale and microscale devices – and even to recharge pacemakers or iPods.

Recent improvements in the nanogenerators, including a simpler fabrication technique, were reported online last week in the journal Nano Letters.



In the latest paper, Wang and his group members Youfan Hu, Yan Zhang, Chen Xu, Guang Zhu and Zetang Li reported on much simpler fabrication techniques. First, they grew arrays of a new type of nanowire that has a conical shape. These wires were cut from their growth substrate and placed into an alcohol solution.

he solution containing the nanowires was then dripped onto a thin metal electrode and a sheet of flexible polymer film. After the alcohol was allowed to dry, another layer was created. Multiple nanowire/polymer layers were built up into a kind of composite, using a process that Wang believes could be scaled up to industrial production.

When flexed, these nanowire sandwiches – which are about two centimeters by 1.5 centimeters – generated enough power to drive a commercial display borrowed from a pocket calculator.

Wang says the nanogenerators are now close to producing enough current for a self-powered system that might monitor the environment for a toxic gas, for instance, then broadcast a warning. The system would include capacitors able to store up the small charges until enough power was available to send out a burst of data.

While even the current nanogenerator output remains below the level required for such devices as iPods or cardiac pacemakers, Wang believes those levels will be reached within three to five years. The current nanogenerator, he notes, is nearly 100 times more powerful than what his group had developed just a year ago.

And in another paper published in Nano Letters, Wang and group members Guang Zhu, Rusen Yang and Sihong Wang reported on yet another advance boosting nanogenerator output. Their approach, called “scalable sweeping printing,” includes a two-step process of (1) transferring vertically-aligned zinc oxide nanowires to a polymer receiving substrate to form horizontal arrays and (2) applying parallel strip electrodes to connect all of the nanowires together.

Using a single layer of this structure, the researchers produced an open-circuit voltage of 2.03 volts and a peak output power density of approximately 11 milliwatts per cubic centimeter.

“From when we got started in 2005 until today, we have dramatically improved the output of our nanogenerators,” Wang noted. “We are within the range of what’s needed. If we can drive these small components, I believe we will be able to power small systems in the near future. In the next five years, I hope to see this move into application.”

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