Friday, April 13, 2007

Nano Power!!

It's been a while since I read anything fun about nanotechnology, so I went hunting today. Searching high and low, I combed the Internet for any signs of life in the nanoworld. Okay, that's a massive exaggeration. All I did was head over to and peruse their latest headlines. This one by Bill Christensen--"Tiny Generator Would Make Electricity While You Walk"--sounded promising. What's the first thing anyone learns about nanotech? It's tiny. So, I clicked my way on over to see whether these "tiny generators" were small enough to qualify for nano-status.

They do, indeed. What I found was a nifty new accomplishment by Professor Zhong Lin Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology:

Wang has created a tiny nanogenerator that produces a continuous flow of electricity by harvesting mechanical energy from its surroundings. It can produce energy from ultrasonic waves, mechanical movement or even blood flow.

Christensen explains that Wang's tiny power plants are constructed of lots of little wires which flex with the motion around them. The flexing builds an electric charge in the wires, which when moved enough to contact a "collection plate," deposit their electric load. Enough of those wires added together can gather tiny amounts of direct current. We are not looking at lighting Chicago with this method of electrical generation. We're not even talking about lighting your house. However, some of the little electronic devices most of us rely on every day to ease our way through the modern world, like cellphones and iPods? These we might have a shot at juicing with nanogenerators.

So many things that we do every day create force that goes to waste. We stand up. We sit down. We turn our heads. We drum our fingers. We breathe and blink our eyes. All that movement could certainly wiggle a few wires. Of course, there's the question of how you place those wires and collection plates where they can reap this power whirlwind. No one is going to want eyelid power stations, are they? (Well, some people might, judging by the body piercing craze.) Running electronic devices off of various body implants might be edging us a little closer than we'd like into Borg territory--merging man with machine. However, there are other options. Putting aside the notion of implants, how would you like to charge your phone just by taking a stroll?

Wang and his group believe that the nanowires could produce as much as 4 watts per cubic centimeter. "If you had a device like this in your shoes when you walked, you would be able to generate your own small current to power small electronics," Wang noted. "Anything that makes the nanowires move within the generator can be used for generating power. Very little force is required to move them."

Here's a scenario for you: You crash your car in the middle of nowhere, barely escaping the Hollywoodesque inferno. Miraculously, you are completely unharmed. The miracle is not all-inclusive, however. You go to call for help, only to discover your cellphone is dead--no hope of charging it in your recently-exploded Subaru. (Oh wait, Subarus are supposed to be really safe. Let's make it a Pinto.) What do you do? Why, you start walking toward the nearest town, of course. The phone charges while you're hoofing it, and the rescue team meets you before you can make it a quarter of the way to the local hamlet. (By the way, the walking toward town is a good idea even if it's not going to charge your phone. I mean what else are you going to do, sit there listening to soothing music on your iPod? That's going to have to be charged eventually too, so you might as well get going.)

Needless to say, at some point we'll get over our Borgaphobia and submit to the implants. After all, eventually we're going to find it inconvenient to have those little generators limited to our shoes. What if we want to go for a walk on the beach--barefoot, of course--and we need to make an important call? No, the shoe thing just won't work long-term. Christensen did mention that the nanogenerators could collect power from flowing blood. I think the answer will be miniature floating power stations, circulating around in our bloodstreams. While they're at it, they can check our blood sugar, and clean our arteries, and balance our hormones, and... You get the picture. I think we should put them in dogs, too. The power they generate could run yet-to-be invented electro-gadget dog collars that keep Phydeaux from running away, and peeing on the carpet, and other important pet/pet-owner bones of contention. I'm sure if we think about it hard enough, we will also find a way to use these bloodstream nanogenerators to solve all the world's other problems, including terrorism and halitosis. There is just no limit to the benefits of nanotech.