Tiny but Mighty:

Revolutionary discovery harvests limitless power of graphene.

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What if there were a limitless energy source that meant you need never again change a battery in a watch, phone or pacemaker?

Paul Thibado has found that source in graphene.

Graphene, a nano-material comprised of a single layer of carbon atoms, has been explored for a variety of uses in recent years, from water filtration to electronics and wearable technology. But Thibado is the first scientist to harness its potential to produce energy.

Thibado, a professor of physics at the University of Arkansas, has invented a patent-pending device that uses the natural motion of graphene to turn heat from the atmosphere into electrical energy. Thibado and his colleagues were studying this motion by laying sheets of the one-atom-thick material across a copper grid that acted as a scaffold, when they observed something unexpected: as the sheets of graphene absorbed heat from the atmosphere, they buckled up and down in a specific pattern.

“This is the key to using the motion of 2D materials as a source of harvestable energy,” Thibado said. 

Good Vibrations

Thibado used this discovery to create a patent-pending invention called the Vibration Energy Harvester. In the design for this device, a negatively charged sheet of graphene is suspended between two metal electrodes. When the graphene flips up, it induces a positive charge in the top electrode, and when it flips down, it charges the bottom one, creating an alternating current.

Scanning tunneling microscope used to observe the natural movement of atom-thick layers of graphene.

The pieces of graphene in Thibado’s lab measure about 10 microns across, so tiny that more than 20,000 of them could fit on the head of a pin. Each movement of an individual ripple measures just 10 nanometers by 10 nanometers — 1 billionth of a meter. Those tiny, natural movements of a sheet of graphene, so small that it can only be seen through a high-powered microscope, can produce up to 10 picowatts of power, which means each piece has the potential to power a wristwatch.

Powering the Internet of Things

Physics professor Paul Thibado

Thibado explained that the Vibration Energy Harvester could be the perfect energy source for lifesaving technology and medical implants like pacemakers and insulin pumps, as well as power a growing number of physical objects that send and receive data over the internet, called the Internet of Things. 

According to a report from Cisco Consulting Services and DHL Trend Research, the number of connected devices is expected to grow from 15 billion in 2015 to 50 billion by 2020. These devices could include wearable health monitors, home devices such as thermostats and lighting, street lights that gather information to optimize the flow of traffic, and warehouse equipment that monitors inventory. 

Moving Toward Commercialization

“This is by far the most exciting project I’ve seen.”

- Charles Woodson,  director of research and technology at NTS Innovations

“This is by far the most exciting project I’ve seen,” said Charles Woodson, who has worked in the energy and nanotechnology fields for more than five decades.  Woodson is director of research and technology at NTS Innovations, a national technology company.

Woodson was on the lookout for promising new graphene technology when he found Thibado’s research through a Google search. He was immediately interested. 

A sheet of graphene as seen through the scanning tunneling microscope

Woodson works at NTS’s Tulsa branch, less than 150 miles from the University of Arkansas. The company, which is headquartered in Peoria, Illinois, focuses on the commercialization of nanotechnology, the production of green energy, and other environmentally sustainable projects, all via 2D materials.

NTS Innovations licensed the patent for the Vibration Energy Harvester in January 2018 to further develop the technology with the goal of moving it into the marketplace.

Thibado anticipates that this collaboration will provide important educational experiences for students from physics, chemistry, engineering and other department, as well as employment opportunities for U of A graduates. This project, which started as a microscopic ripple on a sheet of graphene, is now a multidisciplinary collaboration between academia and industry, and it could be the next big energy breakthrough.

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