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Wearable devices powered by body heat? (pictures)

A wearable thermoelectric generator printed on a glass fabric gives us the ability to harvest the body's heat for power.

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James Martin

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1 of 7 Prof. Byung Jin Cho/KAIST

Thermoelectric generator on glass fabric

Researchers from the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) are set to revolutionize wearable technology. They've developed a new light and flexible generator made out of thermoelectric materials printed on glass fabric.

The design makes human-powered devices possible in a way we've never seen before. Yielding a tool that's smaller and lighter than other biogenerators, this method may be the power-harvesting boost wearables need to compete.

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2 of 7 Prof. Byung Jin Cho/KAIST

A light, flexible glass fabric

How to supply power in a stable and reliable manner is one of the most critical issues when it comes to commercializing wearable devices, says Byung Jin Cho, a professor of electrical engineering who developed the flexible generator.

The team of KAIST researchers, headed by Cho, devised a solution to this problem by developing a glass-fabric-based thermoelectric generator that's light, flexible, and produces electricity from the heat of the human body.

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3 of 7 Prof. Byung Jin Cho/KAIST

A revolutionary design approach

Professor Cho and his team synthesized liquidlike pastes of n-type (Bi2Te3) and p-type (Sb2Te3) thermoelectric materials and printed them onto a glass fabric using a screen printing technique.

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4 of 7 Prof. Byung Jin Cho/KAIST

Reduce weight, generate power

"For our case, the glass fabric itself serves as the upper and lower substrates of a [thermoelectric] generator, keeping the inorganic [thermoelectric] materials in between," said Cho.

"This is quite a revolutionary [way] to design a generator," Cho continued. "In so doing, we were able to significantly reduce the weight of our generator, which is an essential element for wearable electronics."

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5 of 7 Prof. Byung Jin Cho/KAIST

The critical hurdle for wearables

For electronics to be widely adopted they must be light, flexible, and equipped with a power source, which could be a portable, long-lasting battery or no battery at all but a generator.

How to supply power in a stable and reliable manner is seen by many manufacturers as one of the most critical hurdles to successfully commercializing wearable devices.

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6 of 7 Prof. Byung Jin Cho/KAIST

Abundant thermal energy

The KAIST glass-fabric-based flexible thermoelectric generator uses a screen printing technique and the self-sustaining structure of a thermoelectric device without top and bottom substrates. With this technique it's possible to make the device both thin (approximately 500um), lightweight (0.13 g cm−2), and flexible, opening it up for a wide array of applications. Cho said scaled-up uses might include automobiles, factories, aircraft, and vessels where we see abundant thermal energy that's currently being wasted.

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7 of 7 Prof. Byung Jin Cho/KAIST

Multiple tens of times more electricity

hough both smaller and lighter in its design,  the glass-fabric generator also produces large output power density that greatly outperform other fabricated pliant thermoelectric dynamos -- yielding multiple-tens of times more electricity than previously developed bio-generating instruments.

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