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Science & TechnologyPutting the "Science" in "Science Fiction" - Electro

Putting the "Science" in "Science Fiction" - Electro

Putting the "Science" in "Science Fiction" - Electro

Maxwell Dillon is a criminal from the Marvel Universe who took the name Electro after he gained the ability to manipulate electricity. The villain can generate electricity within his body and use it to shock his victims by touch, launch bolts of lightning and control machinery. Electro has used his powers to fight Spiderman, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four and many other superheroes. The idea of a person being able to generate electricity may seem totally fantastic, but in fact all living things generate electrical currents to some degree. The main difference between the real world and fictional examples is simply the amount of energy produced. The electric fields generated by most organisms, with notable exceptions like the electric eel and less well-known electric catfish, are very weak and are mainly involved in muscle control and similar bodily functions.

As the number of electronic devices people carry around in their daily lives increases, it should come as no surprise that scientists and inventors are working to find a way to harness the electrical energy that humans produce. Instead of using this energy as a weapon, most research revolves around using it to find ways to improve people's daily lives. A promising area of research in this field revolves around what are known as paper batteries – created by taking ordinary paper and impregnating it with carbon nanotubes, then soaking it in an electrolyte solution. The result works like a battery or capacitor, storing electricity and releasing it when required, but relies on no harsh or toxic chemicals. As this technology progresses, it should become possible to print these batteries much as newspapers are currently printed, allowing fast, cheap and easy production that will make the resulting batteries affordable.

The promise of cheap batteries without any hazards would be reason enough to continue this avenue of research, but paper

Paper batteries can even be cut, with each fragment then becoming a smaller battery. PHOTO: Stanford

batteries have other features that cannot be replicated by conventional batteries. The process of turning paper into a battery does not greatly alter its other properties, meaning that a paper battery can be bent and folded without any effect on its ability to store power. Because of the way in which paper batteries work, they can even be cut, with each fragment then becoming a smaller battery. The thinness of paper batteries also means that they can be stacked on top of each other in order to improve their ability to store a charge without greatly increasing their size. This, combined with their flexibility, would allow for much more efficient use of space.

All of these features are astounding improvements over current batteries, but perhaps the most intriguing aspect of paper batteries is how they can be recharged. One way to recharge a paper battery is by exposing it to electrolytic solutions, including some human body fluids such as blood and sweat. This capability allows paper batteries to be used in entirely new ways, and to replace currently hazardous uses of batteries with a safer alternative. One possibility is weaving these batteries into clothing, allowing them to be recharged by the wearer's sweat. Once they were charged, the batteries could then be used to recharge or power electronic gadgets. A similar idea would be a watchband containing batteries, eliminating the need to replace the battery.

Although these possibilities would change how people recharge their devices, the most promising proposed use for paper batteries is medical. Since paper batteries can be recharged by contact with blood and are chemically safe, they can theoretically be implanted in the human body. This would allow for the replacement of the chemical batteries found in modern pacemakers and would be useful for powering cybernetic replacement limbs and organs, solving one of the problems with bringing these technologies into daily use.

The fabric works as a thermopile, creating electricity by using temperature changes. PHOTO: Wake Forest University

Using the body's own electrical energy to power machines is a groundbreaking new approach, but scientists are also investigating other ways for people to recharge their devices using their own bodies. Another type of battery charger that is being examined is called Power Felt. This material incorporates carbon nanotubes in its design, but in this case they are locked in plastic fibers that feel like fabric. The fabric works as a thermopile, creating electricity by using temperature changes. Although thermopiles have existed for quite a while, they have generally required very high temperatures or radioactive materials to operate, and have not been able to generate electricity as efficiently as other methods. Power Felt promises to change that, as it is able to generate electricity from a temperature difference as small as the difference between room temperature and human body temperature. This breakthrough development would allow for such things as cell phone cases that charge the phone as it sits in a pocket, or even coats that can be used to recharge an MP3 player using the wearer's body heat.

However, these are not the only potential uses for Power Felt, and its creator envisions it as a general aid to electrical efficiency by using waste heat from cars, furnaces and even hot water pipes to generate electricity. The potential goes even farther than that, as its inventor seeks ways to make Power Felt thinner and more efficient at generating electricity. If this technology is perfected, it may someday come to replace modern power generation systems such as turbines and the pistons found in modern cars, allowing for the creation of more reliable and much smaller engines and power generators.

Paper batteries and Power Felt have great promise on their own, and even more exciting possibilities emerge when they are combined. If these systems become integrated with other advances in power generation, such as breakthroughs in piezoelectric systems1, and continuing work on improving energy efficiency, the day may come when the clothes a person wears will produce enough power to keep all their portable electronics running without ever stopping to recharge them. If these systems become advanced enough, they may even help to usher in other technologies that were thought to be impossible with modern battery technology, such as Power Felt bodysuits and piezoelectric systems helping to power robotic exoskeletons.

As these technologies become commercially available they are certain to usher in a future filled with more reliable and efficient, safer and more eco-friendly electronics.


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