No one can forget how humans were used as a power source for computers and robots in “The Matrix.” Although that concept might seem like something from a dystopian science-fiction movie, researchers just got one step closer to bringing it to life. A team from the University of Colorado Boulder designed a wearable that harnesses the human body’s natural heat and uses it to generate power, according to a recent press release.
Fortunately, humans won’t be serving as living battery packs anytime soon. The experiment simply demonstrates that there are a number of innovative ways to power our gadgets. As the market for wearable devices continues to grow in the coming years, adopting some of these solutions will be key to making them smaller and more efficient.
The UC Boulder team published its work in the journal Science Advances.
It’s true that the human body produces an incredibly large amount of energy every day. Most of that comes from natural metabolic processes and is released in the form of heat. The team from UC Boulder designed a device that uses thermoelectric generators to turn that heat into useful electricity.
The device consists of a stretchy material known as polyimine that can be formed into almost any shape. For their study, the researchers used a ring. However, the approach would also work with something like a bracelet or necklace.
To translate heat into energy, the team added several thin thermoelectric chips and connected them with liquid metal wires. This approach helps the wearable remain stretchy and flexible. From there, as the wearer’s body produces heat, the ring captures it and turns it into electricity.
Jianliang Xiao, the study’s senior author, says, “The thermoelectric generators are in close contact with the human body, and they can use the heat that would normally be dissipated into the environment.”
The team notes that adding more generators allows the wearable to generate more electricity. Xiao estimates that a wearable the size of a sports wristband could generate around five volts of electricity while its wearer takes a walk.
It will likely be several years before a device powered by its wearer enters the market. However, that hasn’t stopped Xiao and his team from thinking about the possibilities. The thermoelectric generator approach could be useful in the real world.
While humans might not be able to produce enough heat to power a laptop or large robot, the possibility of powering a small wearable is certainly realistic. The team claims that its device generates one volt of electricity for every square centimeter of skin space it occupies.
Moreover, the approach means that wearable gadgets wouldn’t need to be removed to charge. Xiao says, “Whenever you use a battery, you’re depleting that battery and will, eventually, need to replace it. The nice thing about our thermoelectric device is that you can wear it, and it provides you with constant power.”
For something like a smartwatch or smart ring that measures both activity during the day and sleep at night, this would be a major advantage.
It will be interesting to see whether or not device manufacturers try to adopt this technology for future wearables.