Researchers really excited by electric potential of tiny molecule

5 Dec 2017

Image: Dmitriy Rybin/Shutterstock

A team of researchers from the University of Limerick believes it might have found a sustainable power source from a tiny molecule.

The race is on to discover and utilise the next generation of portable power supplies that can not only last for significantly longer, but also come from more sustainable sources.

To that end, a team from the University of Limerick (UL) has found a microscopic source that is both low-cost and sustainable.

In a paper published to Nature Materials, the team revealed how biomolecule glycine, when tapped or squeezed, can generate enough electricity to power devices such as a mobile phone or a motion detector.

The power is generated by the fact that glycine is a piezoelectric material, which can generate electricity in response to pressure, and vice versa. These materials are widely used in cars, phones and remote controls for games consoles.

Tiny molecule, big future

Glycine is the simplest amino acid and occurs in practically all agriculture and forestry residues.

Crucially, it can be produced at less than 1pc of the cost of currently used piezoelectric materials, which are more expensive, normally synthetic and often contain toxic elements such as lead or lithium.

“It is really exciting that such a tiny molecule can generate so much electricity,” said Sarah Guerin, lead author and researcher at UL’s Bernal Institute.

“We used computer models to predict the electrical response of a wide range of crystals, and the glycine number was off the charts. We then grew long, narrow crystals of glycine in alcohol and we produced electricity just by tapping them.”

These predictive models help shave off years of trial-and-error lab work, and a patent has already been filed. This could turn the team’s findings into applications such as biodegradable power generation, devices detecting diseases inside of the body and physiologically controlled drug pumps.

This development follows on from other interesting research conducted on electricity generation at UL, whereby it was explored how protein found in tears and egg whites could be used to create renewable energy.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic