May 012011
 

Battery technology hasn’t kept pace with advancements in portable electronics, but the race is on to fix this. One revolutionary concept being pursued by a team of researchers in New Zealand involves creating “wearable energy harvesters” capable of converting movement from humans or found in nature into battery power.

A class of variable capacitor generators known as “dielectric elastomer generators” (DEGs) shows great potential for wearable energy harvesting. In fact, researchers at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute’s Biomimetics Lab believe DEGs may enable light, soft, form-fitting, silent energy harvesters with excellent mechanical properties that match human muscle. They describe their findings in the American Institute of Physics’ journal Applied Physics Letters.

“Imagine soft generators that produce energy by flexing and stretching as they ride ocean waves or sway in the breeze like a tree,” says Thomas McKay, a Ph.D. candidate working on soft generator research at the Biomimetics Lab. “We’ve developed a low-cost power generator with an unprecedented combination of softness, flexibility, and low mass. These characteristics provide an opportunity to harvest energy from environmental sources with much greater simplicity than previously possible.”

Dielectric elastomers, often referred to as artificial muscles, are stretchy materials that are capable of producing energy when deformed. In the past, artificial muscle generators required bulky, rigid, and expensive external electronics.

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