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The Future of Energy: Powering the World with Vibrations

Batteries are an essential component of most electrical devices. They power everything from drones and thermostats, to laptops and cars. By storing electrical energy and distributing it as needed, batteries provide the energy devices need without using electrical outlets.

However, batteries limit the lifetime of the devices they power. Whenever a battery runs out of energy, it must be recharged or manually replaced. “Increasing the size of the batteries – or using additional batteries – is not the best method to increase a device’s lifetime, as doing so increases the cost and size of the device, possibly rendering it useless,” explains Onur Tigli, director of the BioCMOS/MEMS/Nano Laboratory and associate professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and in Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology.

Tigli and his team of researchers are looking into reducing the electrical device’s dependence on batteries by removing the batteries altogether. Their plan is to power electrical devices utilizing otherwise unused energy in the environment by converting it into electrical energy, a process known as energy harvesting.

“Possible sources for energy harvesting include solar energy, radio frequency waves, temperature gradients and vibrations,” says Tigli. “Among these sources, vibrations have a higher power density – more power in less volume – which increases the efficiency of the energy harvesting system,” he explains. Specifically, Tigli’s team is focused on converting vibrations from the environment into electrical energy.

Certain materials can generate an electric charge in response to an applied force, a phenomenon called the piezoelectric effect. When the force alternates, a vibration is created, thus producing an electric charge that oscillates positively and negatively. The alternating current produced by the vibrations can be used to power electrical devices or stored in an energy storage unit for later use.

“Due to the inherent nature of the piezoelectric effect, this technology can easily be scaled down to a micrometer scale,” Tigli says. “We are currently designing, fabricating and testing micron-scale piezoelectric energy harvesters that can be integrated with existing systems.”

Tigli continues, “This is important because integrating our devices into existing circuits to form one stand-alone, self-powered system will facilitate their application and increase their durability. This will revolutionize technologies where batteries are difficult to replace, such as implanted health-monitoring medical devices. Our energy harvesters can be utilized to supply sustainable, clean power for these standalone sensors, effectively replacing batteries.”

The micron-scale piezoelectric energy harvesters can also be incorporated into battery-powered systems, such as phones and smart watches. “Our approach is expected to significantly enhance device lifetimes by allowing these devices to power themselves with their own movement,” adds Tigli.

Details about this technology were recently featured at National Science Foundation (NSF) Science360, please click here to watch. A video about Tigli’s research and the micron-scale piezoelectric energy harvesters is available on UM’s Youtube Channel, please click here to watch.

For more information, please visit Dr. Tigli’s Bio CMOS/MEMS/NANO Research Team’s website at http://www.coe.miami.edu/tigli.

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