Energy Scavengers: Static Electricity Could Power the World

By harvesting the everyday energy of static electricity, scientists may have found the world's most plentiful source of renewable, sustainable power.

The plastic gizmo in Zhong Lin Wang’s hand doesn’t look like tomorrow’s solution to our looming energy crisis. It’s about the size and shape of a small grapefruit, but smooth and translucent. As he shakes it, a smaller ball inside bounces around freely.

“If you’re out of power, you’re out of everything,” says Wang, speaking in a fierce whisper that demands listeners lean in. He stands perfectly still, but the shaking makes the interior ball clatter around like a frustrated piece of popcorn. In his other hand, Wang holds a small circuit board with a blinking LED light in the middle. A wire connects the plastic sphere to the light. The more he shakes, the louder the clatter, and the faster the white light blinks on and off.

We're in a windowless basement room on Georgia Tech’s Atlanta campus. A trio of fresh-faced researchers stand nearby in white lab coats, watching and smiling. One holds a keyboard, and another a piece of red and yellow fabric.

“In our environment, everything is moving, everything is changing,” Wang says, still shaking. “It’s all energy, and so much is wasted.” He wants to do something about that. For the last decade and a half, Wang, an electrical engineer and nanotechnologist, has sought ways to scavenge energy from the movements of ordinary life.


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