Mobile phone speakers and motion detectors in cars and video games may soon be powered by electricity generated from low cost and sustainable biomaterials, according to research carried out at University of Limerick (UL), Ireland. Scientists at UL’s Bernal Institute have discovered that the biomolecule glycine, when tapped or squeezed, can generate enough electricity to power electrical devices in an economically viable and environmentally sustainable way.
Piezoelectric materials generate electricity in response to pressure and vice versa. They are widely used in cars, phones, and remote controls for games consoles. Unlike glycine, these materials are normally synthetic and often contain toxic elements such as lead or lithium.
Glycine is the simplest amino acid. It occurs in practically all agro and forestry residues. It can be produced at less than one percent of the cost of currently used piezoelectric materials. Scientists at UL’s Bernal Institute have discovered that the biomolecule glycine, when tapped or squeezed, can generate enough electricity to power electrical devices in an economically viable and environmentally sustainable way.
It is really exciting that such a tiny molecule can generate so much electricity. We used computer models to predict the electrical response of a wide range of crystals and the glycine number was off the charts. We then grew long, narrow crystals of glycine in alcohol and we produced electricity just by tapping them, said lead author and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funded post-graduate researcher at the Department of Physics and the Bernal Institute, UL, Sarah Guerin.
Entitled “Control of Piezoelectricity in Amino Acids by Supramolecular Packing” the research paper was published on December 4 in the international journal Nature Materials.
According to Dr Damien Thompson, Sarah’s PhD supervisor, the predictive models being developed can save “years of trial-and-error” lab work. The modelling data tells researchers what kinds of crystals to grow and where best to cut and press those crystals to generate electricity.
Co-author and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Centre for Medical Devices (CURAM) investigator Professor Tofail Syed said that there is a patent pending that “translates” the findings to applications such as “biodegradable power generation, devices detecting diseases inside of the body and physiologically controlled drug pumps”.
The current finding extends the technology towards pragmatic, low-cost, renewable sources for electricity generation. The finding translates the earlier Bernal scientists’ world-leading contribution in bio-piezoelectricity towards a large-scale and affordable application potential, said Professor Luuk van der Wielen, Director of the Bernal Institute and Bernal Professor of Biosystems Engineering and Design.
Previously, Bernal scientists discovered piezoelectricity in the globular protein lysozyme, found in tears, egg-white and saliva, and hydroxyapatite, a component of bone.
UL’s Department of Physics and Bernal Institute researchers continue to pioneer the use of biological crystals for electrical applications. This work places them at the forefront in the development of bio-piezoelectric devices, said Professor Edmond Magner, Dean of Science and Engineering at UL