Wearable electronics could someday run on body heat

Caption: KAIST's thermoelectric generator can be bent as many as 120 times, but it still shows the same high performance.

A newly developed thin, flexible patch converts body heat into electricity, adding to the possibility that electronic devices could someday maintain power for much longer than current battery tech allows.

Patches that generate power from heat have been developed in the past, but the newest version out of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology combines their features to create a patch that maximizes power output while still remaining thin and flexible. Both are necessary characteristics for a patch meant to be worn on skin.

The patch is made from glass fibers woven together to form a sheet. Pastes that can convert heat into electricity by exploiting the temperature difference between a person’s skin and surrounding air are pressed down into the fabric. The glass fabric is much lighter than materials like ceramics and alumina that are more traditionally used to hold the pastes.

The wearable electronics industry is in pursuit of battery and power technology that can vastly extend the life of personal electronics. Right now, it is impossible to build a sophisticated mobile device that can remain on and under a heavy computing load without its battery draining before the day is up. As a result, devices like Google Glass need to switch between “on” and “idle,” diminishing their usefulness. Developments like this patch could someday reduce devices’ reliance on batteries or eliminate it altogether.

The KAIST team said in a release that the technology could also be used to capture wasted heat from cars, factories, planes and boats and recycle it back as fresh electricity.

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