Nanotechnology leads to self-powered battery

Researchers at RMIT have enabled piezoelectric thin films to turn mechanical pressure into electricity

Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) have taken a step toward developing self-powered portable electronics by enabling piezoelectric thin films to turn mechanical pressure into electricity.

Speaking to Computerworld Australia, lead co-author, Dr Madhu Bhaskaran, said the research combined piezoelectrics, which are materials capable of converting pressure into electrical energy, and microchip manufacturing or thin film technology.

“The ultimate aim was to gain power by harnessing off the physiological functions in the body, for instance blood pressure actually powering a biomedical device,” she said.

“The most common example of where this has been implemented is a lighter, where you press off the element it’s essentially triggering and creating the spark and it has been implemented from around thirty years back.”

According to Bhaskaran, piezoelectrics could be integrated into running shoes to charge mobile phones and enable laptops to be powered through typing to essentially create an everlasting battery.

"The concept of energy harvesting using piezoelectric nanomaterials has been demonstrated but the realisation of these structures can be complex and they are poorly suited to mass fabrication.”

The project, running since 2006, is still in the fundamental research phase and around two to three years from becoming a product that could be commercialised.

"Our study focused on thin film coatings because we believe they hold the only practical possibility of integrating piezoelectrics into existing electronic technology."

Researchers have been studying piezoelectrics for some time, Bhaskaran said, mainly focusing on things like nano-wires but the films are more integratable into existing technology because it already uses the films in many forms.

"With the drive for alternative energy solutions, we need to find more efficient ways to power microchips, which are the building blocks of everyday technology like the smarter phone or faster computer," Bhaskaran said.

Bhaskaran co-authored the study with RMIT’s Dr Sharath Sriram within the university’s Microplatforms Research Group, and collaborated with Australian National University's (ANU) Dr Simon Ruffell on the project. The study will be published in the 21 June issue Advanced Functional Materials.

"The next key challenge will be amplifying the electrical energy generated by the piezoelectric materials to enable them to be integrated into low-cost, compact structures."

Bhaskeran said the process required the electrical energy, currently around 250 microwatts, to be amplified 10 times to 2.5 milliwatts in order to be used commercially as a battery.

“It won’t be a difficult process but it’ll be quite time consuming, it’s quite easy actually creating it but testing it will be the tricky thing.”

Should the technology eventually be commercialised it would be very affordable, she said, as the films are the same as those currently being used on electronic devices.

Follow Chloe Herrick on Twitter: @chloe_CW

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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