New technologies harvest energy from movements, sound and more

December 31, 2014 by Steve Johnson, San Jose Mercury News

Fed up with constantly having to recharge or replace batteries in your ever-expanding trove of electronic gadgets? The solution may be just a few steps away.

"Energy harvesting" promises to innumerable consumer devices, often with nothing more than your body's movement or heat. Dozens of companies around the world already offer such products, primarily for controlling lighting and temperature-control systems, but many experts believe the market for the technology could explode thanks to being developed for the Internet of Things.

"It's huge," said Graham Martin, CEO of the EnOcean Alliance, a San Ramon-based group of businesses that promotes wireless energy-harvesting technologies.

With the Internet of Things expected to incorporate billions of devices, "if they're all battery-powered, we'll have a problem because there's not enough lithium in the world," he added. "So a lot of them will have to use energy harvesting."

Among the most basic forms of the technology is body power. When certain materials are squeezed or stretched, the movement of their atoms creates an electrical charge. Automatic watches have employed the concept for decades, for example, by winding themselves when their user moves their arm. Now, the concept is being considered for a multitude of other devices.

Consumer electronics giant Philips sells a switch that wirelessly operates room lights, powered only by the tap of a finger. A similar light switch developed by EcoHarvester of Berkeley, displayed at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, gets its energy when someone merely gives it a turn.

Leg power also has promise, according to energy consultant Christine Hertzog. By generating from students walking across a floor, she has blogged, "schools could harness the pitter-patter of little feet to power some of their building needs."

In fact, some European nightclubs already supply some of their energy from people dancing on floors, which compress to generate electricity.

Apple has been mulling a slightly different approach. In a patent it obtained last year, the Cupertino company proposed using magnets beside a circuit board with printed coils to generate electricity "when a user shakes the system or when the user walks or runs while holding the device." The consumer-products leviathan said it envisions the technology being useful for video recorders, cameras, laptops and other devices.

And Bionic Power of Canada has developed a walking-powered knee brace with Canadian and U.S. military officials to recharge battery-powered devices for soldiers in the field.

Body heat can produce energy, too.

In a contest seeking visionary ideas for wearable technologies, Intel in May awarded $5,000 for a concept to convert the temperature difference between a person's body and a special garment they'd wear into electricity for mobile gadgets. A similar body-heat is being developed by Perpetua of Corvallis, Oregon, to provide electricity for devices that assist athletes, patients and emergency first responders.

Using sound to power devices is another energy-harvesting variation. Stanford University engineers are testing smart microchips that create electricity from ultrasound to power implantable devices that can analyze a person's nervous system or treat their diseases.

A textile research association in Spain is proposing to extract electricity from radio waves that flow around everyone to power sensors sewn into clothes, which can monitor a person's heartbeat or other vital signs.

Research firm IDTechEx has estimated that annual global sales of energy-harvesting products - currently around $300 million - could hit $2.6 billion by 2024, while WinterGreen Research predicts sales of $4.2 billion by 2019.

Coaxing consistent energy from gadgets can be complex, however. For one thing, the motion that generates the electricity has to be constant to be useful. Moreover, the amount of power the devices produce depends on the person using them, according to a Columbia University study this year. It determined that taller people on average provide about 20 percent more power than shorter ones when walking, running or cycling.

It's also unclear how eagerly consumers might embrace energy-harvesting products. While such devices are expected to cost less than battery-powered alternatives when compared over many years, experts say, people may continue buying ones with batteries merely because those would be cheaper in the short term.

Still, Harry Zervos, an IDTechEx analyst, believes will catch on big eventually.

"There needs to be a way to stop all of these millions of batteries from being created," he said. "We're choking on batteries already."

Explore further: Device captures energy from walking to recharge wireless gadgets

1 shares

Related Stories

Piezoelectric chin device harvests jaw movements for energy

September 22, 2014

Two researchers share the wish for more autonomy for mobile technologies, greater convenience for consumers contemplating electronic wearables, and better solutions for avoiding the environmental effects of cast-off batteries. ...

Electrochemical cell converts waste heat into electricity

November 18, 2014

Picture a device that can produce electricity using nothing but the ambient heat around it. Thanks to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science today, this scenario is a step closer – a team ...

Recommended for you

Inferring urban travel patterns from cellphone data

August 29, 2016

In making decisions about infrastructure development and resource allocation, city planners rely on models of how people move through their cities, on foot, in cars, and on public transportation. Those models are largely ...

How machine learning can help with voice disorders

August 29, 2016

There's no human instinct more basic than speech, and yet, for many people, talking can be taxing. 1 in 14 working-age Americans suffer from voice disorders that are often associated with abnormal vocal behaviors - some of ...

Apple issues update after cyber weapon captured

August 26, 2016

Apple iPhone owners on Friday were urged to install a quickly released security update after a sophisticated attack on an Emirati dissident exposed vulnerabilities targeted by cyber arms dealers.

8 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

HealingMindN
3 / 5 (2) Dec 31, 2014
What about harvesting energy from human heart beats like the machines in the Matrix?
MR166
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 31, 2014
This article epitomizes the Pollyanna expectations of the green energy movement IE meaningful power from miniscule sources of energy. Microwatts and Megawatts are all the same to this movement just as long as it appears to be "Free" energy.
foolspoo
not rated yet Jan 01, 2015
Lol the concept is and must be based on otherwise wasted energy mr healing
Caliban
2 / 5 (1) Jan 01, 2015
This article epitomizes the Pollyanna expectations of the green energy movement IE meaningful power from miniscule sources of energy. Microwatts and Megawatts are all the same to this movement just as long as it appears to be "Free" energy.


No, onesickstick, it epitomises the absurd lengths to which your revered freemarket is willing to go in order to harvest profits from zombie tool consumers.
MR166
2 / 5 (1) Jan 01, 2015
"No, onesickstick, it epitomises the absurd lengths to which your revered freemarket is willing to go in order to harvest profits from zombie tool consumers."

Well that is the great thing about a free market isn't it! Stupid companies with stupid products soon go bankrupt and it does not cost the taxpayer one nickel.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (4) Jan 01, 2015
Well that is the great thing about a free market isn't it! Stupid companies with stupid products soon go bankrupt and it does not cost the taxpayer one nickel.
@MR
i'll see your statement and raise you (most) "Billy Mays" commercials as proof that you are wrong

or need i say "Slinky" ?
LMFAO
had to...

it is not always true that "Stupid companies with stupid products soon go bankrupt" MR... in fact, especially now with the advent of the internet and mass media... some REALLY STUPID products are making people MILLIONS...

just sayin
24volts
2 / 5 (2) Jan 02, 2015
Personally I'm just curious how Apple got a patent on something that's been on the market for about 15 years already.
MR166
1 / 5 (2) Jan 03, 2015
".... some REALLY STUPID products are making people MILLIONS..."

Capt. then, by definition, this product is filling a real or perceived need. I am afraid that you are not the final arbitror when it comes to deciding what is a useful product.

Only a government can force one to buy something that is not wanted or useful.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.