The word nano means billionth, so a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. This is the tiny world in which nanogenerators operate, visible only through high-powered microscopes. Generating power at this scale requires specialized methods of energy harvesting. The three types of nanogenerators currently in development by researchers around the world are piezoelectric, triboelectric, and pyroelectric. So how do these tiny marvels work?
Nanogenerator is the term researchers use to describe a small electronic chip that can use mechanical movements of the body, such as a gentle finger pinch, to generate electricity. The chip has an integrated circuit etched onto a flexible surface, similar to components on the circuit boards inside your computer. As the “nano-” prefix implies, these generators are a piece of nanotechnology, or technology so small its size is measured by the nanometer (one billionth of a meter). So, even the most complex and powerful nanogenerators in existence today are small enough to be held between two fingers.
The key components inside a nanogenerator are nanowires or a similar structure made from a piezoelectric ceramic material. Piezoelectric materials can generate an electric current just by being bent or stressed.
Besides being incredibly small and responsive, nanogenerators are increasingly powerful. In March 2011, researchers measured the output of five nanogenerators stacked together. This tiny stack produced a current of about one microampere, which produced three volts of energy, about the same as two AA batteries.
2012 saw some massive advances in output power density of nanogenerators and the growing number of researchers around the world show no sign of slowing this progress. From technology embedded in your clothes to under-skin implants, nanogenerators promise to make the future of nanotechnology far more user-friendly.
Another research team has taken a different approach to piezoelectricity generation at a nano-scale. Their material of choice is lead zirconate titanate (PZT). This material is extremely brittle, however, a problematic property for a material under strain. The team have come up with a unique way to get around this, forming the PZT into nanoribbons and setting them out in a wave-like pattern.
A side benefit of using nanogenerators is their potential positive impact on the environment. Nanogenerators use a renewable resource: kinetic energy from body movement. They’re created from more environmentally friendly materials than batteries, and they have the potential to reduce the waste associated with battery production and disposal. Still, the impact is small, literally, due to the size and limited power of nanogenerators. Time will tell if the nanogenerators will be viable in powering larger devices such as laptops.
Nanogenerators probably won’t replace batteries, at least not in the near future. You still need battery backups for devices with which you’re not in regular physical contact, such as alarm clocks. You also want to ensure that some devices continue to run idly even when you’re not using or touching them, such as your smartphone. Perhaps in the future, manufacturers will pair nanogenerators with some type of rechargeable battery system to create a dependable power source with reduced environmental impact.
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