Smart Ships on the Horizon

by | Oct 2, 2019

Scientists develop a triboelectric nanogenerator that harvests mechanical energy from unstable surfaces, such as a swaying ship.

In light of the global energy crisis and our efforts to be less reliant on fossil fuels, much research has been dedicated to establishing clean and renewable energy sources, such as light, chemical, mechanical, and nuclear energy, to meet the demands of our society. Among these, mechanical energy is considered to be the most widely distributed and can be found in flowing water, a spinning wheel, or even facial expressions.

Triboelectric nanogenerators (TENGs), which combine triboelectrification and electrostatic induction, provide a novel and effective approach to harvesting mechanical energy that would otherwise be meaningful for untethered, self-powered systems that don’t use batteries. Take, for example, the rocking motion of a ship at sea, which is most commonly associated with navigational trouble and seasickness. It is, however, a low frequency- and amplitude-based fluctuation, and a perfect target for TENGs.

Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Georgia Institute of Technology have designed a tilt-sensitive triboelectric nanogenerator (TS-TENG) that can effectively harvest energy from unstable or fluctuating surfaces under low-frequency and low-amplitude conditions. The model ship experiments conducted in wave tanks suggested that the device, which flaunts integrated blade structures on sliders, is highly sensitive to tilting motions that guarantee a power output. They also added in a complementary inverted device to improve the motion stability of the device by excluding extra torque on the sliders.

Output performance of the complementary inverted shipborne device in water.

Due to its low cost, light weight, and scalability, the TS-TENG could be an ideal power source for future untethered sensing systems powered by the swaying motions of ships.

“Triboelectric nanogenerators show great capability in harvesting low-grade mechanical energy for self-powered systems, which should feature in the new era of internet of things,” concludes Professor Zhong Lin Wang, one of the study’s authors.

Besides its potential application in self‐powered systems for smart ships, the TS-TENG could also prove handy in other tilt-sensing applications such as detecting earthquakes or landslides or monitoring the structure of bridges. While an important step forward, the next challenge will be to develop systems that integrate TENGs, power management, sensors, control, and wireless signal transmission for practical application.

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