Electricity From the Smallest Sources

Old plant material may become a new source of electricity, if research conducted by scientists at the University of Limerick (UL) can be believed. According to the team, glycine — an amino acid classified as a piezoelectric material, or a material that produces electricity when mechanically stressed — can generate electricity when squeezed or tapped. The amount of power glycine creates would be enough to power electronics like smartphones, motion detectors, and wireless controllers for video game consoles.

“It is really exciting that such a tiny molecule can generate so much electricity,” said Sarah Guerin, lead author and researcher at UL’s Bernal Institute, in a press release. She explained that her team discovered this plant waste electricity by using computer models to predict the electrical response of different crystals.

"The glycine number was off the charts," Guerin said. "We then grew long, narrow crystals of glycine in alcohol and we produced electricity just by tapping them.”

Using piezoelectric materials to produce energy is nothing new; these materials are already used in the aforementioned electronics. However, glycine can be produced for less than 1 percent of the amount used for piezoelectric materials, as it can be found in nearly all agriculture and forestry residues. Additionally, glycine doesn't contain lead or lithium, two elements that are toxic to humans.

Continued Research

"The current finding extends the technology towards pragmatic, low-cost, renewable sources for electricity generation," explained Luuk van der Wielen, Director of the Bernal Institute and Bernal Professor of Biosystems Engineering and Design, in the press release.

The team's research follows previous research into low-cost electricity by Limerick scientists. In October, a UL team published research in Applied Physics Letters that explored the possibility of using tears and egg whites to produce energy.

"UL's Department of Physics and Bernal Institute researchers continue to pioneer the use of biological crystals for electrical applications," added Edmond Magner, Dean of Science and Engineering at UL. "This work places them at the forefront in the development of bio-piezoelectric devices."

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