The film harvests energy found in the water gradient between dry and water-rich environments. When the 20-micrometer-thick film lies on a surface that contains even a small amount of moisture, the bottom layer absorbs evaporated water, forcing the film to curl away from the surface. Once the bottom of the film is exposed to air, it quickly releases the moisture, somersaults forward, and starts to curl up again. As this cycle is repeated, the continuous motion converts the chemical energy of the water gradient into mechanical energy.
Such films could act as either actuators (a type of motor) or generators. As an actuator, the material can be surprisingly powerful: The researchers demonstrated that a 25-milligram film can lift a load of glass slides 380 times its own weight, or transport a load of silver wires 10 times its own weight, by working as a potent water-powered "mini tractor." Using only water as an energy source, this film could replace the electricity-powered actuators now used to control small robotic limbs.
"It doesn't need a lot of water," Ma says. "A very small amount of moisture would be enough."
The mechanical energy generated by the material can also be converted into electricity by coupling the polymer film with a piezoelectric material, which converts mechanical stress to an electric charge. This system can generate an average power of 5.6 nanowatts, which can be stored in capacitors to power ultra-low-power microelectronic devices, such as temperature and humidity sensors.
If used to generate electricity on a larger scale, the film could harvest energy from the environment for example, while placed above a lake or river. Or, it could be attached to clothing, where the mere evaporation of sweat could fuel devices such as physiological monitoring sensors. "Yo
|Contact: Sarah McDonnell|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology