As implanted medical devices increase in variety and function and wearable computing draws closer, their energy needs have become paramount. Now, new sources are being found even as the devices scale down their energy requirements.

What is changing?

In 2007, Shaping Tomorrow published a trend alert about energy scavenging of power from ambient sources, and the research is advancing especially with regards to the human body’s ability to generate electricity. Michigan University scientists are developing a pacemaker that would effectively be self-powered by harnessing the movement of the heart it is maintaining. Similar technology is also generating energy from blood flow and other sources of kinetic energy. However, researchers at MIT are utilizing a naturally occurring battery deep within the inner ear. By tapping this source, they hope to perpetually charge ultra-low power devices like sensors, hearing aids, and eventually cochlear implants for the deaf.

Powering devices from one’s own body isn’t solely for medical devices, and some scientists have focused more on the outside of the body. Researchers at Berkley Lab have developed the first living generator made from engineered viruses which convert force to energy. Such technology could be installed in the soles of shoes to generate a charge as the wearer applies pressure, piezoelectricity, on the device from each step they take.

In 2007, the Fraunhofer Institute unveiled entire electronic systems powered by body heat, thermoelectricity, and capable of running without a battery, but researchers at Wake Forest University have now gone a step further in seeking investment for the commercial development of Power Felt which uses a similar method. The researchers say their product is much more cost effective and could become a commercially viable way to charge personal electronics.

Two projects are working to combine charges from different mechanisms. North Carolina State University researchers are combining thermoelectricity and piezoelectricity at the nanoscale to power health monitoring sensors. MIT researchers harness three sources to power biomedical devices: heat for thermoelectricity, pressure for piezoelectricity, and solar power.

Why is this important?

Biomedical devices are likely to be the first practical applications aimed at delivering drugs, attacking toxins, monitoring performance, powering various types of implants, etc. Such devices would help patients live a freer lifestyle in spite of their health needs. Athletes could monitor and maintain peak performance from anywhere, and transhumanists could prepare for their cyborg future.

However, if Power Felt fulfills its promise, consumer electronics may see the first real world applications. As more practicable wearable computing devices enter the market—which Intel says are likely to hit in 2-5 years—they may be innovative enough to run on smaller charges even as researchers find ways to increase the charge limits of these personal power generators.

Technology that draws from several such power sources holds the most potential by generating more energy and powering larger devices. New consumer products might take advantage of these energy sources to charge themselves without batteries, and the technology would therefore help fill a void in renewable energy and play a part in reducing the carbon footprint of concerned consumers.

By Dennis Draeger

About the author:

Dennis Draeger, a Senior Research Associate with Shaping Tomorrow, is a global citizen currently based in New Zealand. After finishing his master’s in Futures Studies at University of Houston, his foresight consulting portfolio has grown to include work with SMEs, government agencies, and global corporations while partnering with Shaping Tomorrow, Research for Tomorrow Today and Next Corporation. He now heads up Aiglatson Foresight Research.