Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed a new low-cost wearable device that transforms the human body into a biological battery.
The device is elastic enough that you can wear it as a ring, bracelet, or other accessories that touches your skin. It also harnesses a person’s natural heat, using thermoelectric generators to convert the body’s internal temperature into electricity.
“In the future, we want to be able to power portable electronic devices without having to include a battery,” said Jianliang Xiao, lead author of the new paper and associate professor in the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Scientists have previously experimented with similar thermoelectric handheld devices, but Xiao’s is elastic, can fix itself when damaged, and is fully recyclable, making it a cleaner alternative to traditional electronics.
The project is not Xiao’s first attempt to merge humans with robots. He and his colleagues previously experimented with designing “electronic skin,” wearable devices that look and behave much like real human skin. However, that Android epidermis has to be connected to an external power source for it to work.
The group’s latest innovation starts with a base made of an elastic material called polyamine. The scientists then place a series of thin thermoelectric chips on that base, connecting them all with liquid metal wires.
The final product looks like a cross between a plastic bracelet and a miniature computer motherboard or perhaps a technical diamond ring.
Also, researchers believe that they can easily increase that power by adding more generator blocks. In that regard, he likens his design to a popular children’s toy.
“What I can do is combine these smaller units to get a larger unit,” he said. “It’s like putting a bunch of small Lego pieces together to make a big structure. It gives you a lot of customization options.”
Xiao and his colleagues calculated, for example, that a person walking briskly could use a device the size of a typical sports wristband to generate about 5 volts of electricity, which is more than many watch batteries can muster.
Like Xiao’s electronic skin, the new devices are as tough as biological tissue.
If your device breaks, you can snap the broken ends and they will seal back together in just a few minutes. And when you’re done with the device, you can dip it in a special solution that will separate the electronics and dissolve the polyimide base. Any of these ingredients can be reused.
“We are trying to make our devices as cheap and reliable as possible while having as close to zero impact on the environment as possible,” Xiao said.
While there are still design issues to be worked out, he believes his group’s devices could appear on the market in 5 to 10 years. “Don’t tell the robots. We don’t want them to have ideas,” commented a representative from the University of Colorado.