Physicists at the University of Arkansas have invented a nano-scale power generator that could potentially use the movement of graphene to produce clean, unlimited energy. Called a Vibration Energy Harvester, this development provides evidence for the theory that two-dimensional materials could be a source of usable energy.
Paul Thibado, a professor of physics at the university, got the idea for the generator after his team observed some strange, microscopic movements in sheets of graphene, which is made up of a single layer of carbon atoms. After laying out the sheets over a copper scaffold, the team was confused by the images they were collecting with a microscope.
Then they tried narrowed their focus and “separated each image into sub-images,” Thibado said in a Research Frontiers article. “Looking at large-scale averages hid the different patterns. Each region of a single image, when viewed over time, produced a more meaningful pattern.”
Once they started analyzing the sheets point-by-point, they made an amazing discovery — the graphene was essentially rippling, flipping up and down through a combination of small, random motions and larger, sudden movements known as Lévy flights. This was the first time such movement had been observed in an inorganic, atomic-scale system. The team determined that the movements were due to ambient heat at room temperature.
Because of graphene’s sheet-like nature, its atoms vibrated in tandem, which sets it apart from the random vibrations you would see in, say, molecules of a liquid. Thibado said to Research Frontiers, “This is the key to using the motion of 2D-materials as a source of harvestable energy.” The tandem vibrations cause ripples in the graphene sheet from which we can harness energy using the latest nanotechnology.
The researchers then designed a tiny generator to do just that. This device could have a drastic impact on our access to clean, unlimited energy. It could allow our tech to send, receive, process, or store information, powered solely by the heat available at room temperature. This clearly could have remarkable and widely varied applications.
Now, while Thibado has applied for a patent and is insistent on the potential of this device, it has yet to be proven effective. It has remarkable possibilities, but we will have to see how the prototype of the tiny electric generator turns out before we know whether it is a viable energy solution. But, if the claims of this team prove to be true, it could revolutionize not only how we create energy, but the devices that we are capable of creating.
One potential application is medical devices. Current medical implants often require batteries. And, while these batteries are long-lasting, a self-charging device that relies on microscopic graphene movement could allow devices to be both smaller and more effective in the long-run. Thibado remarked on this possibility to Research Frontiers, saying “Self-powering enables smart bio-implants, which would profoundly impact society.”
This could extend into a range of biomedical applications. Microscopic, self-powering capabilities could be remarkably helpful for hearing devices which often require frequent, expensive, bulky battery changes. Pace-makers and wearable sensors could also improve from such tech.
Graphene could also power non-medical wearable technologies. From “smart” graphene fashion to in-ear translators and wearable cryptocurrency, devices that blend with our organic shapes and movement are becoming increasingly popular and capable.
While this unique application of graphene is new and has yet to be fully proven, Thibado and his team will continue to explore the unique material’s potential as a clean, unlimited energy source. Such a power source would be game-changing, as it could immeasurably advance technologies that are becoming more compatible with our own human biology.