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Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani is a veteran finance writer, investor, engineer and researcher for Safehaven.com. 

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A Human Battery: The World Is One Step Closer To Wearable Energy

The consumer-wearable devices of today have come a long way from the days of the clunky Google Glass. A Pew Research study last year found that roughly one-in-five U.S. adults (21%) regularly wear a smartwatch or wearable fitness tracker. This trend is helping fuel robust growth, with the consumer wearables market projected to expand from nearly $37.10 billion in 2020 to $104.39 billion by 2027 thanks to advances in sensors, materials science and cloud computing. The modern wearable ecosystem runs the entire gamut of sensors from conventional sports trackers, smartwatches, and on-body cameras to heart rate meters and eye-wear. Next-generation wearables will also involve augmented-, virtual-, mixed-, and enhanced-reality devices, various smart clothes, and industrial wearable equipment.

And now you can add body-interfacing to the growing list of capabilities by modern wearable devices.

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have unveiled the first power-autonomous skin-interfaced wearable devices that can use the human body as a medium to simultaneously recover power in devices worn at different points on the body such as the waist, wrist, arm, ankle and thigh from a single power source, such as a mobile phone in a pocket.

This significant discovery means that the next generation of biomedical wearables will now be able to sustain prolonged operation--a critical consideration for applications such as continuous health monitoring.

Body-interfaced wearables

Wearable technology and mobile healthcare systems are both increasingly popular solutions to traditional healthcare due to their ease of implementation and cost-effectiveness for remote health monitoring. Recent advances in research, especially the miniaturization of sensors, have significantly contributed to commercializing the wearable technology. Most of the traditional commercially available sensors are either mechanical or optical, but nowadays transdermal microneedles are also being used for micro-sensing such as continuous glucose monitoring. 

However, there remain certain key challenges that need to be addressed before large-scale deployment of body and skin-interfaced wearable devices becomes a reality. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the biggest challenge faced by all these wearable sensors is our skin, which has an inherent property to resist and protect the body from the outside world.

Up to now, delivering power to skin-interfaced wearable devices typically relies on batteries, wires, or conventional air-coupled wireless power transfer (WPT). Unfortunately, all these methods come with key limitations: Batteries need to be constantly recharged and replaced while wires restrict movement. Meanwhile, WPT appears like the most elegant solution of the three. However, it is only practical over short distances and is also prone to interruptions in power transmission by obstacles. 

Related: Exxon Sting Reveals Black Book Of Senators

The results by the NUS scientists published in Nature Electronics show that body-coupled power transmission is not only a possibility but also that power transmission can recover sufficient power to power important biomedical devices, even when the transmitter and receiver devices are located at opposite ends of the body e.g. the ankle and forehead.

The energy harvesting devices contain an electrode that picks up the electric field at wavelengths of between 20 and 80 MHz on the skin and relays it to a receiver. The body-coupled transmission actually outperformed radiofrequency (RF) power transmission by up to 70 and 50 dB, at 2.4 GHz and 900 MHz, respectively.

The enhanced area coverage by body-coupled devices compared with RF transmission allowed the researchers to supply 1.2 mW of power from a transmitter on one wrist to an electrode on the opposite wrist located 120 cm apart and recover 1.1 μW of the original energy pulse. The results were equally encouraging for electrodes on the ankle and forehead (160 cm apart), with the scientists able to recover 2 μW--enough to power a wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) sensor. 

Even more encouraging is the fact that the amount of power recovered by a receiver is independent of electrode size or number of receiving devices, making concurrent monitoring and future device miniaturization possible.

Amazingly, the technology can also make use of ambient power sources such as a laptop or a 50/60 Hz power line in the absence of an active power source. For instance, the NUS team was able to recover 2 μW from a charging laptop 50 cm away, making the technology a good complement to existing air-coupled wireless power transfer.

The Human Battery

Other comparable advances in the world of wearables are likely to make them much more pervasive in the near future.

An often-cited reason why wearables such as Apple Watch, Google Glass and Samsung Galaxy S3 Frontier have failed to really take off, apart from looking too nerdy, is low battery life. The majority of wearables are too power hungry and need constant charging to keep up.

But with any luck, your next smartwatch or fitness tracker might be able to run much longer between charges thanks to a technology that will turn you into a biological battery.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed a new, low-cost wearable device that employs thermoelectric generators to convert the wearer's internal heat into electricity.

The inventor, Jianliang Xiao, associate professor at the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering at CU Boulder, says his device beats other similar thermoelectric wearable devices because it’s stretchy, can heal itself when damaged and is fully recyclable --meaning it’s a cleaner alternative to traditional electronics. The device will be able to generate about 1 volt of energy for every square centimeter of skin area --not much but still enough to power electronics like smartwatches or fitness trackers.

The device begins with a base made out of a stretchy material called polyimine, into which the scientist sticks a series of thin thermoelectric chips, connecting them all with liquid metal wires. The final product is a stretchable device that looks like a cross between a plastic bracelet and a miniature CPU that captures the excess heat that you radiate during your workouts rather than letting it go to waste.

Neuralink

Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s startup Neuralink wants to put coin-sized implants into human skulls that can directly connect to the brain using robot surgeons. But who wants their brains hacked? For starters, Neuralink believes its implants could help people with severe spinal cord injuries walk again, help blind people see again or even deaf people hear again. Musk says they could even cure anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, conditions that afflict up to a quarter of the population.

Musk says a spinal injury is basically a broken wire, and it should be possible to implant another device at the point of the spine injury and create a 'neural shunt.'

Neuralink recently conducted a recruitment drive with Musk saying they are looking for robotics engineers, people to help the company create the chips and write the software they'll need. He says though that applicants need not have prior experiences on brains.

Musk does admit that Neuralink bears Black Mirror overtones with Neuralink implants possibly having the ability to save and replay memories in the future. For the time being, however, the Neuralink Team is more focussed on realistic and short-term goals such as getting a quadriplegic to play StarCraft.

By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com

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