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The future of battery is … no battery

A graphene based circuit that exploits graphene’s thermal motion to generate power. Image credit: University of Arkansas

We live in a world of energy, continuously fuelled by the Sun (and, in a minimal part, by radioactive decade). Energy as such is no good. What is needed is to transform one form of energy into another one. We use gasoline (chemically stored energy) and by combining it with oxygen (burning it) we transform it into motion (plus heat), we take water motion energy and transform it into electrical energy and so on. Batteries can store energy in a chemical form and release it in an electrical form.

We can even use our fingers to press a spring and generated a spark.

Now researchers at the University of Arkansas have found a way to exploit the thermal energy of graphene to generate a (tiny) electrical current. Graphene is a thin layer of carbon, as thin as it gets actually since it is just one atom thick. This result is particularly surprising since it was considered to be impossible to extract energy from the vibration of atoms.

The breakthrough is in the kind of circuit used to convert the graphene’s thermal energy into an electrical current (watch the clip). The electrical current is minuscule, to the point of being useless, however if it were possible to produce million of these circuits and package them into a chip having the dimension of a grain of salt (1 square mm) than the total current would be sufficient to power a sensor.

The goal of the researchers is to create a “power chip” that could be included in other chips to power them, As electronics keeps evolving it becomes less and less power hungry several IoTs might be powered in this way no longer needing a battery. That would be an amazing leap forward.

Mind you, this is not “creating energy” out of nowhere, nor it is against the second law of thermodynamics. The energy is in the environment, in the heat present in it (temperature). What the researchers did was to find a way to extract it and convert it into a usable form (energy scavenging). Also, keep in mind that batteries are not becoming obsolete, it is more like we would be able to power billions of IoTs without them, and this would be a great achievement.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.