Scientists Develop Wearable Electric Generators, Harness the Power of the Human Body

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

The world is becoming more and more like The Matrix every day, at least in one particular way: scientists have figured out how to use the human body as a battery. No, your body can’t produce enough energy to create a global simulation, but it can produce enough heat to charge wearable devices like smartwatches and implants like pacemakers. Scientists are hopeful that this new technology can reduce or even eliminate the need for small batteries made with corrosive acids and rare earth metals.

Why This Matters: Battery production and disposal have been problematic for decades. Mining for rare earth metals like such as cadmium, mercury, lead, and lithium threatens environments and communities across the globe. In the U.S., mining for such metals has threatened rare species.  When batteries are thrown out, rather than recycled, those toxic metals find their way into groundwater and threaten human, plant, and animal life in the region. Last year, just over half of all disposed-of lithium batteries were recycled. So we also need to reduce the number of lithium batteries we use, and scientists say that small devices are a perfect place to start.

The Life Electric

In recent years, small devices, have shifted from being powered by alkaline batteries (AA, AAA, etc.) to being powered by lithium-ion technology. While lithium-ion batteries have the benefit of being high-capacity, rechargeable, and long-lasting, when they do reach the end of their life, they can threaten the environment just as much as old-school batteries. 

The new, wearable technology, developed by scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder, is called a thermoelectric generator (TEG). It works by capturing the heat from your body as it dissipates into cooler air while also working as a small solar panel, capturing sunlight that falls onto your skin. These tiny generators are flexible so they won’t break while you’re jogging, working, or just moving the way you do every day. The size of the generator could be as small as a ring on your finger or as big as a compression sleeve, depending on the amount of power you want to harness. These generators use less dangerous metals and are less labor-intensive to recycle, making them both more affordable for consumers and less damaging to the environment.

Jianliang Xiao, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at CU Boulder explains that the technology has the power to make batteries in wearables obsolete. “Whenever you use a battery, you’re depleting that battery and will, eventually, need to replace it. [T]he nice thing about our thermoelectric device is that you can wear it, and it provides you with constant power,” he said in a statement. His team hopes that as the technology evolves, it can be used to power more than wearables and implants, and also power devices with larger electricity requirements like smartphones.

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