Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology say we could all be using self-charging gadgets within five years if research into nanogenerators continues at its current pace.
Zhong Lin Wang and his team are currently working on arrays of tiny nonowires which can harvest small amounts of power from pressure, vibration or even a human heartbeat.
While these generators will never produce huge amounts of power, Wang predicts that they will soon be able to recharge a pacemaker or an iPod.
The 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 microscopic zinc oxide wires, Wang and his research team have produced 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 liquid-crystal displays, light-emitting diodes and laser diodes," said Wang. "If we can sustain this rate of improvement, we will reach some true applications in healthcare devices, personal electronics, or environmental monitoring."
The current method of production uses conical nanowires embedded in a flexible substrate which can be built up in multiple layers, and could soon be scaled up to industrial production with added capacitors to store the power produced.
The current prototypes are generating 100 times more power than they were a year ago, and if that rate of progress continues, we'll all be wearing self-powered iPods by 2015. Unfortunately, you'll probably have to get up off of the couch for a couple of hours to keep it charged.