Harvesting energy from the human knee
This is a diagram of the slider-crank mechanism that generates energy during the knee's motion.
Photo credit: Gao et al.

Harvesting energy from the human knee

Researchers develop a way to power small devices by walking.

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Technology recently developed by a group of researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, makes the possibility of powering your devices by walking not be far out of reach.

An energy harvester is attached to the wearer's knee and can generate 1.6 microwatts of power while the wearer walks without any increase in effort. The energy is enough to power small electronics like health monitoring equipment and GPS devices.

"Self-powered GPS devices will attract the attention of climbers and mountaineers," notes author Wei-Hsin Liao, professor in the department of mechanical and automation engineering.

The researchers used a special smart macrofiber material, which generates energy from any sort of bending it experiences, to create a slider-crank mechanism -- similar to what drives a motor. The authors chose to attach the device to the knee due to the knee joint's large range of motion, compared to most other human joints.

"These harvesters can harvest energy directly from large deformations," Liao says.

Due to the continuous back-and-forth the material will encounter when the wearer walks, every time the knee flexes, the device bends and generates electricity. This means the harvester can "capture biomechanical energy through the natural motion of the human knee," according to Liao.

Previous wearable energy harvesters took advantage of the vibration caused in the device as a result of motion, which comes with drawbacks regarding efficiency.

"The frequency of human walking is quite slow, which significantly decreases the energy-harvesting capability," Liao says. Because the group's device uses a different method, it bypasses this limitation.

The prototype weighs only 307g (0.68 lb) and was tested on human subjects walking at speeds from 2km/h to 6.5km/h (about 1mph to 4mph). The researchers compared the wearers' breathing patterns with and without the device and determined that the energy required to walk was unchanged, meaning that the device is generating power at no cost to the human.

The researchers note the advantages of an efficient, wearable energy harvester and look towards future commercialization of the technology.

"Self-powered equipment can enable users to get rid of the inconvenient daily charge," Liao says. "This energy harvester would promote the development of self-powered wearable devices."

The group describes the technology in Applied Physics Letters, from AIP Publishing.

The article, "Macro fiber composite-based energy harvester for human knee," is authored by Fei Gao, Gaoyu Liu, Brendon Lik Hang Chung, Hugo H. Chan and Wei-Hsin Liao.