Article Thumbnail

Why Can’t I Power My Devices With My Own Body Energy, Like ‘The Matrix’?

Thanks to some new developments in thermoelectric energy-harvesting, we might be able to soon enough

Scientists are increasingly figuring out how to use any hot bundle of energy to power the planet, but what about this hot bundle of energy right here? I’m talking about me, and you, and everyone else. I mean, we exert energy, why can’t we use it to charge our phone or something neat instead of just pointlessly becoming tired? What about hooking me up in a goo pod like in The Matrix? Give me something other than this life of gasoline and outlets! 

There are actually some scientists attempting to figure out how we can use our bodies to power devices, though they’re currently a bit more focused on things like pacemakers and brain implants that require surgery every few years to replace the batteries. Once they’ve figured that out, though, the general concept could likely extend to other electronics, too. 

Most research on body batteries studies the type of energy produced by heat. While we could technically also create power through movement, our body’s constant release of heat makes it a more practical choice. In prototypes, engineers have developed tiny sensor patches that absorb the heat on the surface of the skin as well as “fabric” that can be worn in the form of energy-harvesting clothing. Similarly, there’s already a smartwatch on the market that functions from the energy of body heat, alone. It’s $500, and doesn’t have great reviews

For the last several years, however, this method of energy harvesting hasn’t been efficient enough to be viable in a mainstream market. But in a study published on November 30th, researchers from the University of Wollongong in Australia were able to increase the electrical conductivity of thermoelectric materials without increasing the thermal conductivity, as had previously been an issue. To do so, they manipulated the phonon and electron transport of the materials by adding amorphous nano-boron particles that helped produce more electricity without producing more heat. All together, this method increased efficiency by 60 percent. 

In much, much simpler terms, thermoelectric materials didn’t work well before. Now, they might work much better, meaning there could be an increase in these types of products on the market. The next step will be to make such materials more reliable, so that they can be safely used to power health-related electronics. Back in 2017, The Verge predicted it would be about three years until we saw human energy harvesting become widely available. Surely, COVID has bumped that deadline by a few months, but it might not be much longer before your body can do something useful for a change.