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Need power? Rub some plastic together

Do you remember the old adage of rubbing two sticks together to create fire? Meet the 21st century version.

A deeper look into the flexible, transparent triboelectric generator. Zhong Lin Wang/Georgia Tech

Researchers at Georgia Tech today revealed a triboelectric generator that creates energy when two specific plastic materials rub against one another.

Zhong Lin Wang, a professor at Georgia Tech, created this new spin on an old concept by harnessing the power of rubbing together textured transparent sheets of polyester and polydimethysiloxane. When given an electrical load, a tiny current of electricity flows between the two materials during friction and separation. Repeating the action of grinding and separating creates an alternating current, also known as everyday electrical energy. The output of rubbing the materials yields as "much as 18 volts at about 0.13 microamps per square centimeter," according to a Georgia Tech press release.

The possibilities for a transparent triboelectric generator seem compelling, perhaps opening the door to a future where our endless finger taps on smartphones and tablets no longer affect battery life. "Transparent generators can be fabricated on virtually any surface," said Wang. "This technique could be used to create very sensitive transparent sensors that would not require power from a device's battery."

Another example of using the generator includes a shoe-based application that creates a current while walking. In addition, long-term use of the triboelectric power source appears quite promising, proving capable of providing power after days of use, and surpassing 100,000 cycles of testing.

Wang worked with Feng-Ru Fan, Long Lin, Guang Zhu, Wenzhuo Wu and Rui Zhang from Georgia Tech, who published their findings about the triboelectric generator in the journal Nano Letters.