SciWorks Radio
4:12 pm
Fri March 21, 2014

Nanoengineering the Future of Power Production

Nanoengineering the future of power production with power felt.

  SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem. 

  

Graduate student Corey Hewitt is pictured holding the technology
Credit WFU Photographer Ken Bennett
Power Felt charging on a meter.
Credit WFU Photographer Ken Bennett

  Our culture has an insatiable appetite for energy. As we face challenges with our traditional sources, and imperfections with immediate alternatives, we need to start looking for options to supplement an all-in approach.

When you look around you there's plenty of power to be had that you're ignoring. Right now with your heart beating and you breathing you're making a hundred watts of power. There’s power everywhere you look. The light bulbs that are lighting the room, that has power and it's hitting the walls. What if that power could be collected easily? I'm telling you the can be, and we can do it with something that looks exactly like the shirt on your back right now.

Dr. David Carroll, director of the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University, has found a way in which you, in your surrounding environment, can easily produce some of your own power.

Dr. Carroll’s invention uses nano-technology. What is that? Traditionally, nano means 10 to the negative 9th, which is an incredibly small number. We also use nano to describe technology at the molecular scale.

Materials are made up of atoms and molecules, all sort of strewn together and they have some registry with one another. We engineer that. We change that. We get the components of those materials to talk to one another; to yield properties that are not available to us in nature. What if you need a property that doesn't exist? What we do today is we engineer those properties into materials from the ground up. That's what nanoengineering is and that's what nanomaterials are. 

The classical example is something called the carbon nanotube. It's basically made from carbon. It's very very small, one ten thousandth the width a human hair. This incredible particle has 100 times the yield strength of steel. It can carry 1000 times more current than the same amount of copper. Carbon nanotube is not graphite. It is not what's in your pencil lead, but that's what you started with. And that’s the really cool thing about it.

Power felt utilizes things that we don’t usually think about.

Power felt generates power from motion, it generates power from heat. So if you sit absolutely still and just breathe it's going to generate power because you're generating power. If you move it'll generate power from that. 

We start off with that carbon nanotube that I was telling you about before, and we make a paper from it, doped with various types of molecules so that the electrons and holes that they form, the charge carriers, will flow in certain ways.

And then we come to the real, sort of, magic. The magic started 4000 years ago in origami. We fold it. We fold it into very specific shapes internally. Now, these are very tiny folds-- you can't see them. It looks like fabric when you look at it, but if you could minutely take it apart you would see it was very carefully layered and folded into very special structures that form what we would call a thermoelectric module. That thermoelectric module has components that are made from those carbon nanotubes.

 

A thermoelectric device makes electricity from a difference in temperature. For example, the difference between room temperature and your body temperature.

This was invented here in a part of the country which is known for manufacturing textiles. We have a lot of textile advice around here. A lot of folks are working on manufacturing inexpensively. We build this into threads and we weave it just like normal fabric.

Dr. Carroll’s invention can take the place of any fabric: clothing, seat covers, carpets. Power from all the seats and carpets on an airplane could eliminate a few heavy batteries, making flights more fuel efficient. Imagine replacing traditional home building materials, like home wraps and the material underlying your rooftop shingles. It could even contribute to national defense.

A platoon of soldiers will carry something on the order of one and a half kilowatts of power worth of batteries with them as they go marching along. That same platoon on the other hand is wasting 3 1/2 kW of power during their walk. That's just ridiculous. I think we can fix those things and since they’re going to be wearing cloth anyway, why not use mine.

This Time Round, the theme music for SciWorks Radio, appears as a generous contribution by the band Storyman and courtesy of UFOmusic.com. 

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