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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

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Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics


Bioenergy Harvesting: Bringing the Search for Alternative Energy to Life Justin Risedorf

Alternative energy has been a buzzword for quite some time, so most of us are aware of planet Earth’s well-known alternative sources like solar panels and windmills. On the horizon now, though, is a wave of energy science that captures energy from living sources. Meaning, quite possibly, your backyard plants could power a Wi-Fi chip and your own beating heart could charge a battery.

 

Engineers in Sweden have found a way to bypass the destructive process of combustion by converting living plants into energy. Living plants have native circuitry processes, like photosynthesis, that are regulating and sustaining the plant’s growth. According to their study released in Science Advances, these engineers claim it possible to harvest that energy.

 

This is pretty groundbreaking news. In the race to replace fossil fuels, some power companies have turned to burning trees for energy as renewable resources. Perhaps now, things may be different. Even though the energy potential from living plants would be limited to a few volts, the prospect that living plants may be of value as opposed to dead ones is an exciting affirmation for those wary of the encroaching environmental crisis.

Figure 1: Long term remote monotoring with bio-energy harvesting for power sources. Image credit: Voltree Power.


 

Voltree Power, based in Canton, MA, is a sustainably innovative company specializing in very remote monitoring technology, some of which use bioenergy harvesting. Their patented bioenergy harvester, used on trees, is reducing the dependency on batteries in rural areas where there are no other power options. With this technology, they are opening up a new path for climactic and wildlife monitoring in areas where such tracking was not thought possible.

 

So if energy can be harvested from stationary organisms like plants, how much more energy could be harvested from us busy humans? The human body produces energy through many different processes, like motion, heat, lung contraction, blood flow (just to name a few), and researchers are now looking at methods to harness that energy. Perhaps one of the most exciting promises this brings is the ability to power implanted medical devices from the human body without relying on external sources. Currently, pacemakers typically last a maximum of 10 years and then they need to be replaced via surgery. But if a pacemaker could be perpetually recharged by the human heart, millions of people could avoid repeat surgeries in years to come.

 

The problem arises, though, in that living human beings still need the energy they’re producing in order to function. The challenge becomes harvesting enough energy to power the device while still leaving enough energy for the body to perform properly. But it’s only a matter of time before innovation fully overcomes this obstacle. Researchers from MIT and Harvard have already found a way to access the energy produced by the inner ear to power an electronic chip, which could revolutionize auditory medicine.

 

Of course, there are some obstacles looming in front of bioenergy harvesting. Even if the science is mastered, alternative energy sources are eternally pitted against both economics and politics. Skeptics ask questions like, “Is it worth growing a field of plants to be used for energy when we could use that field for food?” And the green-minded ask questions like, “Is it all that environmentally friendly to invade the rainforests with innovation?” And the pragmatic ask, “Why bother replacing the pacemaker battery when you will still need to replace other parts on the device anyway?” These questions are tough, but innovation will have an answer. It’s absolutely possible that, within the next decade, plants and humans alike will be seen as viable energy sources.

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Justin is a contributing author who loves to read and write about the advancements of technology and robotics. When not at work, you can find him conquering Risk and Catan or on an adventure with his wife and kids. Last Father's Day he received a #1 dad shirt, so now that's official.


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