Researchers believe they’ve found a way to harness vibration energy for self-powered electronics – which means tossing your cell phone on the passenger seat of your car could recharge it someday soon.

A multi-university team of engineers developed a nanogenerator that will harvest and convert vibration energy from a surface into power for the phone.

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Researchers have harnessed vibration energy which means putting your phone down while driving could have an added benefit (Shutterstock).

Incorporated directly into a cell phone housing, the team’s nanogenerator takes advantage of a sponge-like material called polyvinylidene fluoride, or PVDF, which the team says is the key to harvesting vibration energy. “The softer the material, the more sensitive it is to small vibrations,” Xudong Wang, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said.

“We believe this development could be a new solution for creating self-charged personal electronics,” he said.

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The soft material that harvests and converts vibration energy is made of piezoelectric material like this (Image via Princeton University).

The nanogenerator itself includes thin electrode sheets on the front and back of the mesoporous polymer film (think plastic wrap for tiny electronics), and the researchers can attach this soft, flexible film seamlessly to flat, rough or curvy surfaces, including human skin. In the case of a cell phone, it uses the phone’s own weight to enhance its displacement and amplify its electrical output, according to the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Piezoelectric materials can generate electricity from a mechanical force – in other words, when they are shifted, moved, flexed or in any other way put under pressure, they generate electricity. Science Daily reported:

Rather than relying on putting a strain on the material, the researchers incorporated zinc oxide nanoparticles into a PVDF thin film to trigger formation of the piezoelectric phase that enables it to harvest vibration energy.

Then, they etched the nanoparticles off the film; the resulting interconnected pores — called “mesopores” because of their size — cause the otherwise stiff material to behave somewhat like a sponge.

The technology is similar to other piezoelectric projects, where scientists have attempted to use the flexible materials to harness and convert energy for pacemakers.

“Pacemakers are currently run off of batteries, which means that surgery is required every few years to replace the battery. (But ) the lungs operate in a mode similar to a balloon expanding and contracting i.e., in a stretching operation mode. Our biocompatible energy harvesting materials have now been shown to generate power (when stretched).”

If this technology is introduced into the commercial market, it could offer one more reason to put your phone down while driving – not only will you avoid a ticket, but you’ll also arrive with a refreshed battery.

Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter.

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