In short: New research published in the Advanced Energy Materials journal could eventually lead to a wide range of devices that can be charged by movement alone using Triboelectric Nanogenerators (TENGs). The associated study, completed by researchers at the University of Surrey's Advanced Technology Institute, essentially shows how an electrical current can be generated by contact between multiple materials. What's more, the scientists have gone beyond the usual research results to produce a step-by-step guide for creating a TENG and formulated a "TENG power transfer equation," in addition to "TENG impedance plots." Those are explicitly designed to assist with moving the new technology forward in terms of optimization for increased power output.
Background: The use of the human body is not new and has even appeared in several wearable devices, ordinarily driven by body heat as is the case with the Matrix Powerwatch X revealed at CES near the beginning of the year. However, the thermoelectric generators (TEGs) powering that rugged sports wearable should not be confused with the TENGs behind the latest research. With the technology in that wearable, for example, a difference in temperature was required between two materials separated by insulating thermoplastics. The heat transference between the two mediums is what generates electricity. That isn't at all the case for TENGs, which rely on movement generating contact between two or more organic, inorganic, or hybrid materials to create electricity. The former technology, in effect, requires a human body in order to be energy efficient since generating heat in order to create the temperature difference without that is wasteful. With TENGs, sources of energy can also include movement caused by wind, waves, and machine vibration to generate a current for charging a battery or powering a device outright.
Impact: Because a human body generating heat isn't required, the possible uses of something like TENG extend far past wearables. Those would also be possible using the technology but only focusing there would be short-sighted. With further research and optimization, the research may eventually see use as either novel or secondary charging methods implemented in anything from wearables and smartphones to infotainment or environmental control systems in a self-driving vehicle. For example, a security camera in a factory might harness the vibrations of machinery for energy, creating some financial savings for a company. That's only one example but even small boosts to battery efficiency or the slightest of energy savings would compound if incorporation across a wide variety of uses.