Three materials science researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a means of harvesting energy from the human nose that could potentially power small electronic devices.
The invention consists of a tiny belt made out of polyvinylidene fluoride that accumulates an electrical charge when it vibrates under the influence of low-speed air flow. The greatest challenge for the researchers was making the belt thin enough to respond to human breath while retaining its electrical properties.
"Basically, we are harvesting mechanical energy from biological systems," Professor Xudong Wang explains. "The airflow of normal human respiration is typically below about two meters per second. We calculated that if we could make this material thin enough, small vibrations could produce a microwatt of electrical energy that could be useful for sensors or other devices implanted in the face."
According to Science Daily, recent advances in nanotechnology are leading to miniature biomedical devices that can monitor blood glucose levels or keep a pacemaker battery charged, but they need a power supply. The nasal belt represents one of several possible ways of harnessing the body's own waste energy to serve this purpose.
Wang, who came to the United States from China in 2002 and received his Ph.D. from Georgia Tech in 2005, has been working on the problem since his student days. Four years ago, he co-authored a paper describing a device to convert high-frequency vibrations into electricity, and it is that research that now appears to be reaching fruition.
"It's a very cool concept," nanowire researcher Peidong Yang told Technology Review in 2007. "Vibrational energy is everywhere. ... The impact could be big."
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