Energy Harvesting Gets Four Legs and Fur

Energy harvesting has been getting interest from a number of different sectors for tiny, energy-saving applications, and now it’s making its way down to the nanoscale. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have attached a tiny muscle-movement-driven generator to a hamster and let him loose in his little hamster wheel, running and scratching, to show that energy can be harvested from irregular body movements (hat tip to MIT’s Technology Review).


The system uses a piezoelectric-based nanogenerator where the stretching of a nanowire creates electricity. Zhong Wang, a materials science and engineering professor who led the research, told the Technology Review that this is the first time a generator has been shown to get energy from small, irregular motion — irregular in terms of frequency of motion as well as amplitude of power. This opens the door for possible uses in implantable medical devices that get their power from muscle stretches, heartbeats and bloodflow.

Putting energy harvesting nanodevices into bodies may be a few years away, but there are some energy harvesting systems that are already on the market, or at least much closer to market, including wireless sensors, regenerative braking, and even bumps in the road. And it’s not just startups that are getting in the game.

Chipmaker Freescale Semiconductor (s FSL) is working with McLaren Electronic Systems on a project that could give Formula 1 race cars a turbo boost from power collected through regenerative braking. EnOcean, a spinoff of electronics and industrial engineering giant Siemens (s SI), makes wireless modules for building automation systems that can grab energy from ambient sources including solar, heat and vibration.

And then there’s the charge-up-your-iPhone-while-you-walk application, with M2E Power developing an electromagnetic system to power up portable devices. There are even ways to get power from everyday, ambient radiation. Scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory are working on getting power using nanoantennas that can absorb infrared energy.

Pretty soon, everything that moves, makes heat, or emits any kind of excess energy could be used to to power up tiny devices, or at least take some of the burden off primary power sources in home appliances or cars. Forget about putting a tiger in your tank — in the future, maybe you’ll stuff a few hamsters in there instead.