Science Can Convert Stress into Electricity

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Unless you’ve got superpowers, your stress probably doesn’t produce much more than anxiety and tears. However, scientists developed a new organic material that can now turn stress into electricity. The team from Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, created the thin new substance. It’s a rubbery material that generates electricity dependant upon movement.

How it Works — The Piezoelectric Effect

The rubbery material functions thanks to the piezoelectric effect — a concept on how movement can generate electricity.

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The concept might sound unfamiliar to most, but millions of people have seen the effect in practice. It’s what happens when the needle of an analog record player reads the grooves of a disk. Through the piezoelectric effect, those vibrations of the needle are transformed into electrical impulses and those impulses then turned into sound waves. At its most basic level, the piezoelectric effect is how mechanical movements generate electricity and then how that electricity can be used elsewhere.

While the plastic-looking substance doesn’t seem anything we’ve seen before with the effect, many other researchers praise it for pushing the limits of previous understanding of the piezoelectric effect. Traditional understanding was limited to hard structures like crystals. However, Dorina Opris and her team at Empa looked for something completely unique.

Making the Rubber

The rubber consists of a composite material made of polar nanoparticles and an elastomer. The team used silicone in its prototype. The material was made in large part to Yee Song Ko, a PhD student at Empa. He shaped the composite materials and the elastomer before connecting them. Song Ko needed to make an internal polarization using a strong electrical field. The team heated the film until the nanoparticles transition from a solid, glassy state into a rubbery and slightly viscous one. This allowed the researchers to manipulate the polarity and thus electrical field. Then, researchers ‘solidified’ the orientation of the field by cooling the film to room temperature.

The biggest downside to this material? As with most other novel materials, it can be incredibly difficult to reproduce and upscale at a reasonable cost.

How it Could Shape the Future

Ultimately, researchers hope that the material could be useful in every facet of life — from robotics to clothing to medical technologies that people use to survive like a pacemaker. The material would allow pacemakers to power themselves without the need for invasive procedures to change the batteries.

“This material could probably even be used to obtain energy from the ,” said Opris. “You could implant it near the heart to generate electricity from the heartbeat, for instance.”

One of the most exciting uses of this technology could be in the advancement of soft robotics and allowing robots to “feel” their surroundings. The material would be able to send impulses to the device for it to be “understood” by a robotic system.

However, it’s not just the film that could be used to teach robots to feel pain. Researchers from Leibniz University of Hannover in Germany developed an artificial nervous system that programmed a robot with the “insights from human pain research.”

 

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