Light bulbs are going off as Zhong Lin Wang stomps on the floor in his Georgia Tech lab – thousands of them, in fact. As these small LED lights flicker on and off, clean, renewable energy is created seemingly out of thin air.
Hoping to offset the problems caused by the steady evaporation of conventional non-renewable energy, Professor Wang is a self-professed dreamer. He dreams of a day when people believe in these tiny flickering lights. To Wang, these lights represent a limitless source of clean, renewable energy capable of fulfilling the world’s energy needs.
Professor Wang might be a dreamer, but he has convinced the likes of Samsung (SSNLF), the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy to dream the same dream.
The lights aren’t being powered by thin air, but it is something incredibly small. And this small thing is what Wang has been developing for the past 20 years. He explains his life’s work, the “world’s first Triboelectric Nanogenerator. At the [beginning] it was very tiny and the output power was almost useless, but we didn’t give up …”
Today, the tiny pyramids seen above, courtesy of Georgia Tech, can make electricity under your feet. And they only measure the width of a red blood cell.
Today, these microscopic generators are two thin sheets of plastic that require little more than a footfall to become electrically charged. By continuously rubbing the surfaces together and quickly separating them, the triboelectric nanogenerator is able to provide a small alternating current. Since research began, Wang’s team has multiplied original power output by 100,000. A single, square-meter sheet now generates 400 watts of power.
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Wang is the first to admit that the wattage equivalent to powering a blender isn’t going to change the world, but is passionate about “[having] a breakthrough point, a niche application. When you get the public’s interest in that [niche application], then you can expand.”
Wang and his team are trying to narrow down niche applications to truly make a commercial application, to be ready next year.
They plan to start with charging a cellphone. The natural movement our phones receive in a pocket or purse could soon be enough to charge a phone at all times with Wang’s new nanotechnology.
Having a phone that never loses its charge would be revolutionary, but Wang’s dream doesn’t stop there.
Sooner rather than later, the world’s fossil fuel reserves will still be exhausted. Wang suggests that, if laid along busy streets and sidewalks, his triboelectric generators could produce sufficient power from contact with cars and pedestrians to power some of the city’s infrastructure.
Using the same type of technology, Wang is also looking to harvest the energy in tidal power. “In the west and east of the United States, the coastal areas, the calculation shows that 31 terra watts of electricity can be generated. 31 terra watts is twice today’s world energy consumption.”
Wang is confident that a viable source of clean, renewable energy has been around all along… and the triboelectric nanogenerator is just the thing to unlock it.