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Your body is the next battery

Stomach acid powered micromotors developed by researchers at the University of California are just the latest of the new technologies which harvest energy from the movements, sound and heat of the human body. 
Body energy harvesting is already used to power innumerable consumer devices. Automatic watches have employed the concept for decades by winding themselves when their user moves their arm. Now, it's being considered for a multitude of other devices. And there are plenty of approaches in the works, including: 
  • Consumer electronics giant Philips sells a switch that wirelessly operates room lights, powered only by the tap of a finger. 
  • Leg power also has promise. UK company Pavagen have developed a flooring tile, converting the wasted kinetic energy from footfall into renewable electricity. It’s already been used in a number of projects including a football pitch in a Brazilian favella and, most recently, powering phone charging stations at Glasgow’s People's Palace and Winter Gardens.
  • Apple is working on a body-powered approach. A patent obtained last year proposes using magnets beside a circuit board with printed coils to generate electricity "when a user shakes the system or when the user walks or runs while holding the device." 
  • Bionic Power of Canada has developed a walking-powered knee brace which can recharge battery-powered devices for soldiers in the field.
  • Oregon based company, Perpetua are working on technology to provide electricity for devices that assist athletes, patients and emergency services.
  • Stanford University engineers are testing smart microchips that create electricity from ultrasound to power implantable devices that can analyse a person's nervous system or treat their diseases.
  • A textile research association in Spain is proposing to extract electricity from the radio waves people generate to power sensors sewn into clothes. These can then be used to monitor heartbeat or other vital signs.
So, a thriving and hugely exciting field, but the challenges with producing this sort of technology are substantial and include:  
  • Achieving a consistent and substantial flow of energy can be extremely difficult. 
  • The amount of power the device produces depends on the person using it. A Columbia University study recently determined that taller people generally provide about 20 percent more power than shorter ones when walking, running or cycling.
  • Consumer acceptance. Although energy-harvesting products will be cheaper to use in the long-term, consumer mindsets are still often focused on the short term, where batteries still currently look more attractive. 
But the future for body-powered devices is bright. Research firm IDTechEx has estimated that annual global sales of energy-harvesting products — currently around $300 million — could hit $2.6 billion by 2024. Much of the growth will be driven by wearables and the Internet of Things. When everything is connected, would you want to change all those batteries? 
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