Pinch on! Pinch off. The generation of energy is tied to one of the basics of any economy; Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman famously borrowed the phrase that best applies here: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This is why we drill for oil in spite of the potential environmental and political calamities that can (and do) happen. This is why we gamble with the radioactive dangers and toxic waste of nuclear power. This is why we’re constantly trying to figure out and improve renewable methods of keeping our cities and the transportation between them going. Energy production is hard work! But what if we could harness the power of our everyday movements to generate electricity that could power small, personal gadgets such as smartphones, mp3 players, handheld gaming consoles, flashlights, health alert devices, hearing aids — really anything that can be carried? That would be about as close to a free lunch as it gets, right?

Renewable Energy by Heartbeat? Practical Nanogenerator May Make It So

What constitutes everyday movement? Even the most desk- and couch-bound among us are in some sort of motion, either voluntarily or otherwise. From lifting a two-liter bottle of Mr. Pibb to one’s Cheetohs-crusted lips to running on a treadmill to scratching an earlobe to wiggling one’s toes to fencing stolen goods among miscreants in the liquor store’s back alley to ice skating to snapping one’s fingers to a peppy ditty on the radio to watching a tennis ball going back and forth on televised Wimbledon coverage, every little bit counts — even down to the beating of a heart! (If your heart’s not beating, you’re probably not worried much about wonders of science, anyway. Please stop reading this and see a doctor immediately.)

At the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim California, scientist Zhong Lin Wang, Ph.D. and his team from Georgia Tech reported success in developing the world’s first commercially feasible nanogenerator that can now use a finger pinch to create electric power. Today a finger pinch, tomorrow a heartbeat? That’s the goal, according to Dr. Wang, who says: “This development represents a milestone toward producing portable electronics that can be powered by body movements without the use of batteries or electrical outlets. Our nanogenerators are poised to change lives in the future. Their potential is only limited by one’s imagination.”

The team’s improvements currently give us a nanogenerator that can power liquid-crystal displayed, LEDs, and laser diodes, but sustained evolution of this technology promises almost unlimited application in the not-too-distant future. The key to this nanogenerator is its use of tiny, tiny zinc oxide nanowires (500 of them could fit inside of a human hair). Their piezoelectric nature means that they generate an electrical current merely by being bent, flexed, or strained, so their minuscule size works perfectly to the benefit of nanogenerator efficiency — this is a case where less really is more. Capturing and combining the charges from millions of these wires into flexible polymer chips (each about 25% of the size of a postage stamp), these nanogenerators can produce about the same voltage output as two regular AA batteries when they’re stacked five chips high.

“While a few volts may not seem like much, it has grown by leaps and bounds over previous versions of the nanogenerator,” said Dr. Wang. “Additional nanowires and more nanogenerators, stacked together, could produce enough energy for powering larger electronics, such as an iPod or charging a cell phone.”

It may not hit the market for another three to five years (and the team is seeking funding for further research and development), but this nanogenerator may really be the closest we’ve ever come to getting something from nothing as far as energy production is concerned. It’s definitely more practical than my giant mutant hamster wheel idea (though any company that wants to throw money my way for further research and development into this field is certainly welcome to do so).