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Science
FRONTIERS
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Monday 21:00-21:30
Frontiers explores new ideas in science, meeting the researchers who see the world through fresh eyes and challenge existing theories - as well as hearing from their critics. Many such developments create new ethical and moral questions and Frontiers is not afraid to consider these.
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Listen to 12 May
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Monday 12 May 2008
A Biomechanical Energy Harvester (copyright: Greg Ehlers/SFU)
The Biomechanical Energy Harvester
(© Greg Ehlers/SFU)

Energy Harvesting

Imagine a heart pacemaker powered by the heart it monitors, or a mobile phone powered by the flexing of a knee.

In this week’s Frontiers, Gareth Mitchell meets scientists who are developing ways of generating small amounts of electricity from human and mechanical vibration.

The research field is known as “energy harvesting”. Harnessing vibration to generate electricity means that devices no longer have to rely on mains electricity or batteries for power.

Scientists in the Electronic Systems Design Research Group at Southampton University are developing a range of sensors that draw their energy from mechanical vibration.

Small amounts of energy harvested in this way can be used to power sensors that monitor the performance of the machine that’s vibrating. Some of these devices are now being developed commercially by a University spin-off company, Perpetuum.

The Southampton team are considering tapping the vibrations of bridges and buildings to generate electricity. The electricity could be used to power arrays of sensors that would monitor the behaviour and performance of the structures.

In principle, the idea could be extended to other vibrating objects. For instance, vibration could be used to power sensors that monitor the location and condition of railway rolling stock.

Scientists are also working on a new generation of devices that could be powered by the human body.  Max Donelan is Director of the Locomotion Laboratory at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Max has developed a biomechanical energy harvester that harvests and stores energy generated by the flexing of the knee.

Paul Mitcheson is a member of the Control and Power Group at Imperial College London.  Paul is developing a heart pacemaker powered by the beating of the heart it monitors.

These kinds of devices raise interesting questions about the interaction of biological and mechanical worlds.

In the future, will energy harvesting propel us towards a stage in human development where distinctions between biological and mechanical worlds disappear?

Will energy harvesting help us develop a more symbiotic relationship with technology, where our bodies supply the energy and, in return, the machine provides us with information that optimises the way our bodies perform?
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