Harnessing the energy of small bending motions

January 6, 2016 by David L. Chandler, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
This diagram illustrates the principle behind the proposed energy-harvesting system. Two metal electrodes made of lithium-alloyed silicon form a sandwich around a layer of electrolyte, a polymer that ions (charged atoms) can move across. When the sandwich is bent, unequal stresses cause lithium ions to migrate across the electrolyte, producing a compensating electron current that can be harnessed by an external circuit. When the bending is relaxed, the process reverses. The process can be repeated thousands of times with little change. (The amount of bending is greatly exaggerated in the diagram for clarity.)

For many applications such as biomedical, mechanical, or environmental monitoring devices, harnessing the energy of small motions could provide a small but virtually unlimited power supply. While a number of approaches have been attempted, researchers at MIT have now developed a completely new method based on electrochemical principles, which could be capable of harvesting energy from a broader range of natural motions and activities, including walking.

The new system, based on the slight bending of a sandwich of metal and polymer sheets, is described in the journal Nature Communications, in a paper by MIT professor Ju Li, graduate students Sangtae Kim and Soon Ju Choi, and four others.

Most previously designed devices for harnessing small motions have been based on the triboelectric effect (essentially friction, like rubbing a balloon against a wool sweater) or piezoelectrics (crystals that produce a small voltage when bent or compressed). These work well for high-frequency sources of motion such as those produced by the vibrations of machinery. But for typical human-scale motions such as walking or exercising, such systems have limits.

"When you put in an impulse" to such traditional materials, "they respond very well, in microseconds. But this doesn't match the timescale of most human activities," says Li, who is the Battelle Energy Alliance Professor in Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor of materials science and engineering. "Also, these devices have high electrical impedance and bending rigidity and can be quite expensive," he says.

Simple and flexible

By contrast, the new system uses technology similar to that in batteries, so it could likely be produced inexpensively at large scale, Li says. In addition, these devices would be inherently flexible, making them more compatible with wearable technology and less likely to break under mechanical stress.

While piezoelectric materials are based on a purely physical process, the new system is electrochemical, like a battery or a fuel cell. It uses two thin sheets of lithium alloys as electrodes, separated by a layer of porous polymer soaked with liquid electrolyte that is efficient at transporting lithium ions between the metal plates. But unlike a rechargeable battery, which takes in electricity, stores it, and then releases it, this system takes in mechanical energy and puts out electricity.

When bent even a slight amount, the layered composite produces a pressure difference that squeezes lithium ions through the polymer (like the reverse osmosis process used in water desalination). It also produces a counteracting voltage and an electrical current in the external circuit between the two electrodes, which can be then used directly to power other devices.

Because it requires only a small amount of bending to produce a voltage, such a device could simply have a tiny weight attached to one end to cause the metal to bend as a result of ordinary movements, when strapped to an arm or leg during everyday activities. Unlike batteries and solar cells, the output from the new system comes in the form of alternating current (AC), with the flow moving first in one direction and then the other as the material bends first one way and then back.

This device converts mechanical to electrical energy; therefore, "it is not limited by the second law of thermodynamics," Li says, which sets an upper limit on the theoretically possible efficiency. "So in principle, [the efficiency] could be 100 percent," he says. In this first-generation device developed to demonstrate the electrochemomechanical working principle, he says, "the best we can hope for is about 15 percent" efficiency. But the system could easily be manufactured in any desired size and is amenable to industrial manufacturing process.

Test of time

The test devices maintain their properties through many cycles of bending and unbending, Li reports, with little reduction in performance after 1,500 cycles. "It's a very stable system," he says.

Previously, the phenomenon underlying the new device "was considered a parasitic effect in the battery community," according to Li, and voltage put into the battery could sometimes induce bending. "We do just the opposite," Li says, putting in the stress and getting a voltage as output. Besides being a potential energy source, he says, this could also be a complementary diagnostic tool in electrochemistry. "It's a good way to evaluate damage mechanisms in batteries, a way to understand battery materials better," he says.

In addition to harnessing daily motion to power , the new system might also be useful as an actuator with biomedical applications, or used for embedded stress sensors in settings such as roads, bridges, keyboards, or other structures, the researchers suggest.

"This work is very interesting and significant in the sense that it provides a novel approach to converting mechanical energy through an electrochemical route, using a simple design and device structure," says Wu Wenzhuo, an assistant professor of industrial engineering at Purdue University who was not involved in this work. "More significantly, the output current from the demonstrated device is very large, with a long pulse duration. This is very important for practical applications, since most other harvesting methods suffer from the issues of small current output with short pulse duration."

Wenzhuo adds that "efficient harvesting of such mechanical energies will help to develop more capable and intelligent wearable devices and human-machine interfaces. … This work presents huge potential in many applications such as flexible electronics, self-powered sensors, wearable devices, human-machine interfaces, robotics, artificial skin, etc."

Explore further: Self-powered e-watch is powered completely by wrist movements

More information: Sangtae Kim et al. Electrochemically driven mechanical energy harvesting, Nature Communications (2016). DOI: 10.1038/ncomms10146

Related Stories

Salty solution to better, safer batteries

November 19, 2015

A team of researchers from the University of Maryland (UMD) and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) have devised a groundbreaking "Water-in-Salt" aqueous Lithium ion battery technology that could provide power, efficiency ...

Solid electrolyte interphases on lithium metal anode

November 23, 2015

The prestigious Advanced Science journal has just published a review paper on solid electrolyte interphases of lithium metal anodes contributed by Prof. Qiang Zhang in Tsinghua University, China and Ji-Guang Zhang in Pacific ...

Recommended for you

Cryptocurrency rivals snap at Bitcoin's heels

January 14, 2018

Bitcoin may be the most famous cryptocurrency but, despite a dizzying rise, it's not the most lucrative one and far from alone in a universe that counts 1,400 rivals, and counting.

Top takeaways from Consumers Electronics Show

January 13, 2018

The 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, which concluded Friday in Las Vegas, drew some 4,000 exhibitors from dozens of countries and more than 170,000 attendees, showcased some of the latest from the technology world.

Finnish firm detects new Intel security flaw

January 12, 2018

A new security flaw has been found in Intel hardware which could enable hackers to access corporate laptops remotely, Finnish cybersecurity specialist F-Secure said on Friday.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 06, 2016
"it is not limited by the second law of thermodynamics," Li says, which sets an upper limit on the theoretically possible efficiency. "So in principle, [the efficiency] could be 100 percent,"

It is however limited by similiar mechanical reasons.

For example, to extract energy out of motion, you have to move against a force. Work is force over distance. This force that you're working against must be some material property that opposes the motion, such as in compressing a spring.

As long as the force is present, the mechanical properties of the device dictate that some energy is stored in the displacement of the material - precisely as in a spring - and not converted to useful work. If the opposing force was zero, this wouldn't happen, but then the device would covert no energy.

It's a similiar problem to how you can't extract 100% of the energy out of a flowing river: to do so, you would have to stop the river. The efficiency can never be 100% - not even in theory.
not rated yet Jan 06, 2016
A simple intuitive example is a lever.

Suppose you take a 2x4 plank and put it over a log on the ground, and use it to lever up a heavy boulder. When you press down on the lever, the boulder goes up. Your gravitational potential energy is reduced while the boulder gains energy, but not 100% of it? Why?

Because the 2x4 bends. The lever in between bends like a spring and stores part of the energy in itself.

The boulder doesn't lift as high as it should if the lever was entirely rigid - no such thing as entirely rigid levers exist in reality - and the longer the lever for more mechanical advantage, the less efficient the energy transfer becomes because the lever bends more and stores more energy.

That's also why trying to turn small vibrations into large voltages by mechanical means is usually very inefficient - there's a lot of "spring" in the system.

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.