Scientists Can Now Transform Stress into Electricity

Swiss researchers created a material that produces electricity when twisted and stretched.
Shelby Rogers

Unless you've got superpowers, your stress probably doesn't produce much more than anxiety and tears. However, in 2017 scientists developed an organic material that can turn stress into electricity. The team from Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, created the substance. 

The piezoelectric effect

The thin rubbery material functions thanks to the piezoelectric effect - a process by which movement can generate electricity.

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 how that electricity can be used elsewhere. 

While the 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.

Shaping the future

The rubber substance consists of a composite material made of polar nanoparticles and an elastomer. The team used silicone in the prototype. The material was made in large part by Yee Song Ko, a Ph.D. 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. 

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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. 

Further, the material could make a huge impact in the medical field. "This material could probably even be used to obtain energy from the human body," said Opris. "You could implant it near the heart to generate electricity from the heartbeat." This could allow pacemakers to power themselves without the need for invasive procedures to change the batteries. 

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. But of course, this could change with time. 

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