Grow strong enough to power small conventional electronic devices

Blinking numbers on a liquid-crystal display (LCD) often indicate that a device’s clock needs resetting. But in the laboratory of Zhong Lin Wang at Georgia Tech, the blinking number on a small LCD signals the success of a five-year effort to power conventional electronic devices with nanoscale generators that harvest mechanical energy from the environment using an array of tiny nanowires.

In this case, the 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.

Wang’s 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.

“By simplifying our design, making it more robust and integrating the contributions from many more nanowires, we have successfully boosted the output of our nanogenerator enough to drive devices such as commercial liquid-crystal displays, light-emitting diodes and laser diodes,” said Wang, a Regents’ professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Materials Science and Engineering. “If we can sustain this rate of improvement, we will reach some true applications in healthcare devices, personal electronics, or environmental monitoring.”

Recent improvements in the nanogenerators, including a simpler fabrication technique, were reported online last week in the journal Nano Letters. Earlier papers in the same journal and in Nature Communications reported other advances for the work, which has been supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Air Force, and the National Science Foundation.

“We are interested in very small devices that can be used in applications such as health care, environmental monitoring and personal electronics,” said Wang. “How to power these devices is a critical issue.”

The earliest zinc oxide nanogenerators used arrays of nanowires grown on a rigid substrate and topped with a metal electrode. Later versions embedded both ends of the nanowires in polymer and produced power by simple flexing. Regardless of the configuration, the devices required careful growth of the nanowire arrays and painstaking assembly.

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