Researchers from the University of Colorado –CU Boulder– have developed a device that transforms the human body into a biological battery. It’s portable, inexpensive, and has caught the attention of Science Advances magazine.
The device, they explain, is elastic enough that it can be used as a ring, a bracelet or any other accessory that is in contact with the skin. It takes advantage of the natural heat of a person, using thermoelectric generators, to convert internal body temperature into electricity.
“In the future, we want to be able to power portable electronic devices without having to include a battery,” said Jianliang Xiao, lead author of the new paper and associate professor in the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering at CU Boulder.
The concept, they ironically, “may sound like something out of Matrix, in which a race of robots has enslaved humans to harvest its precious Energy organic ”. Xiao and his colleagues are not that ambitious: Their devices can generate about one volt of power for every square centimeter of skin space, less voltage per area than most existing batteries provide, but enough to power electronic devices like watches or fitness trackers.
Scientists have previously experimented with similar portable thermoelectric devices, but Xiao’s is elastic, can self-heal only when damaged and is fully recyclable, which makes it a cleaner alternative.
“Every time a battery is used, it wears out and will need to be replaced periodically,” Xiao said. “The great thing about our thermoelectric device is that you can use it and it gives you constant power.”
Fusion of humans with robots
The device that turns the human body into a bio-battery is not Xiao’s first attempt to fuse humans with robots. He and his colleagues previously experimented with designing “Electronic skin”– Wearable devices that look and behave very much like real human skin. That android epidermis, however, has to be connected to an external power source for it to work.
This latest creation has a base made of a stretchy material called polyimine. The scientists then place a series of thin thermoelectric chips on that base, connecting them all with liquid metal wires. The final product looks like a cross between a plastic bracelet and a computer motherboard miniature or maybe a technical diamond ring.
“Our design makes the entire system stretchable without putting a lot of stress on the thermoelectric material, which can be really brittle,” Xiao explained. The scientist gives as an example when a person runs: as he exercises, the body heats up and that heat is radiated into the fresh air that surrounds it; This device captures that flow of energy and prevents it from being wasted.
The human charger can increase power with more Lego blocks
Xiao noted that he can easily increase the power by adding more generator blocks: “It’s like putting together a bunch of little Lego pieces to make a big structure. It gives you a lot of customization options. “
Xiao and his colleagues calculate that a brisk person could use a device the size of a sports bracelet typical to generate around 5 volts of electricity, which is more than many watch batteries can handle.
Like electronic skin, the new devices are as tough as biological tissue. If it breaks, the broken ends can be pulled together and will reseal in just a few minutes. “We are trying to make our devices as cheap and reliable as possible, while also looking for a zero impact on the environment”.
There is still work to be done, but its creator estimates that these devices that harness human heat to create energy they could be on the market in five or ten years.
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