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Nanogenerators harvest body’s energy to power devices

No need to plug in wearable or implantable gadgets that can perform medical tasks

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4:29pm, September 1, 2015
triboelectric nanogenerator w/voltage graph

POWER SQUEEZE  With a squeeze, swing or jiggle, body motion can flex a triboelectric nanogenerator (left) to create voltage (right), which can charge implantable and wearable medical devices. Textured surfaces within the generator can boost the power output.

Ask not what your gadgets can do for you; ask what you can do for your gadgets.

In the race to create bionic humans, researchers are nanometers away from turning people into device chargers. Instruments called nanogenerators can harvest energy from swinging limbs, jiggling skin and ballooning lungs. And that energy can power wearable and implantable gizmos, such as pacemakers, muscle sensors, tumor detectors and even a bone-growing laser.

“This whole area is an incredibly exciting area,” says materials scientist Michael McAlpine of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Merging electronic gadgets directly with the human body is where science is headed, he says, citing examples like a 3-D printed bionic ear made with human cells and a coil antenna. But such body-friendly machinery needs power, and no one wants dangling cords or batteries that require a surgeon to replace.

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