Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a device that could be key to creating self-powered electronics. Credit: Xudong Wang, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A cellphone battery without juice and no electrical cord in sight—the ultimate “first-world problem,” right?

Perhaps, but a group of scientists may nonetheless have a solution. The team, led by senior author Xudong Wang at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has devised a nanogenerator to power your smartphone battery even when you’re away from your charger.

“We believe this development could be a new solution for creating self-charged personal electronics,” Wang, professor of materials science and engineering, said in the press release.

The mesoporous piezoelectric nanogenerator developed by Wang, along with his Ph.D. student Yanchao Mao and a team from Sun Yat-sen University (China) and the University of Minnesota Duluth, harvests and converts vibration energy from a surface, such as the passenger seat of your car, to power for your iPhone. Wang wrote about piezotronic materials—semiconductors with piezoelectric properties—int he August 2013 issue of the ACerS Bulletin.

According to the press release, “Rather than relying on a strain or an electrical field, 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.”

That sponginess is cardinal, the researchers say, to harnessing vibration energy to power your device.

They were able to apply the soft, flexible, mesoporous polymer film seamlessly to flat, rough, or curvy surfaces, including some of the flattest, roughest, and curviest surfaces known to man—human skin. When applied to a cell phone, however, the film “uses the phone’s own weight to enhance its displacement and amplify its electrical output,” states the press release.

The release also indicates that if the nanogenerator were to be incorporated in an electronic device, it could cull enough energy to power the device on its own. Additionally, because of the simplicity of the device’s design and manufacture,  Wang predicts potential applications on a much larger scale.

“We can create tunable mechanical properties in the film,” he said in the release. “And also important is the design of the device. Because we can realize this structure, phone-powering cases or self-powered sensor systems might become possible.”

For a bit of related reading, check out this piezoelectric generator that puts the “power” in power suit.

Feature Image Credit: Xudong Wang, University of Wisconsin-Madison.