Batteries are a major contaminant of the environment, but research suggests we can reduce their use by powering electronics with body warmth and indoor lights. Giles Crosse investigates the potential of self-powered useful devices, better known as SPUDS.
It is vital that we find more sustainable ways to power the growing number of electronic devices. The sheer volume of sensors, automation, medical technology and nanotech can only increase. Every home is already packed with electronic devices. Moreover, there are growing numbers of car owners, especially in Asia. How can we mitigate the impact?
Many scientists believe self-powered useful devices (SPUDS) could provide the answer. They use heat, movement, or light, as their power source, potentially making conventional batteries a thing of the past. They also include cunning new materials which conduct electricity. The magazine Alternative Energy News says progress in battery technology is “mind-boggling”.
One of the most innovative businesses is Alta Devices, in the US. Founded by university professors from Cal-Tech and Berkeley, Alta Device’s trademark is ‘Powering the (Un) Plugged World’. It seeks to do this using its low-light powering technology, which is ideal for use in unmanned systems, consumer electronics, sensors, automotive and remote exploration. Alta claims the system produces five times more power from indoor light than other commercially available solar technologies.
The company claims: “This means that for a given requirement, an Alta Devices solar cell powering a wireless sensor can be one fifth the size, and since the technology is flexible, it can be integrated with a variety of surfaces.”
Alta says sensors will soon be deployed throughout homes, offices, and factories to measure everything from motion and location, to temperature and humidity. Powering these with such technology bypasses the need for cords and fossil-powered electricity. Of course, there are limits. This type of SPUD will most likely be used in smaller electronic goods. They are unlikely to work in kettles, or toasters, which require more watts.
Medical and military
Other uses for SPUDS might be in medical dispensers inside the body, medical implants, or disposable patches. Research is underway at Pennsylvania State University into Self Powered Glucose-Responsive Micropumps. The name might not sound exciting, but the concept has great potential. The abstract, released this August, reveals how the internal micropump runs on the body’s glucose. For example, when a diabetic’s glucose levels are high, the system automatically releases a drug to control the symptoms. In an entirely different sphere, the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency hopes to use the tech to power devices that release anti-nerve agent medicines to troops, combating terrorist dangers.
Meanwhile, researchers from Imperial College London and their European partners, including Volvo Car Corporation, started work four years ago on a prototype material which can store and discharge electrical energy. It would mean parts of a car’s bodywork could double as a battery. “We think the car of the future could be drawing power from its roof, its bonnet or even the door, thanks to our new composite material. Even the Sat Nav could be powered by its own casing.” said Dr Emile Greenhalgh, from the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College, says there are myriad applications for this material. “You might have a mobile phone as thin as a credit card because it no longer needs a bulky battery, or a laptop that can draw energy from its casing so it can run for a longer time without recharging,” she said.
All new technologies face hurdles. But the volume of global scientists working on SPUDS technology suggests commercial products are not far away. There are vast opportunities for far-thinking companies. It may be true that science alone cannot solve the problem of climate change. But new technology has such a crucial role to play that governments should arguably be funding these steps towards a greener world.