Imagine a wooden floor that produces electricity. Image credit: pixabay.com.
Well, scientists at Empa and ETH Zurich have succeeded in making wood compressible enough to turn it into a microgenerator, which when deformed generates enough electrical voltage to be used as a biosensor or to generate usable energy.
n cities, large buildings account for a high percentage of electricity consumption and are therefore responsible for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions. But when thinking about making buildings energetically self-sustainable by integrating renewable energy sources, generally the option thought of is the installation of solar panels, something that we know is effective depending on the climatic conditions and that many times is not the option chosen by architects because it would be necessary to cover part of the surface of the building with the panels, something that aesthetically is not desired.
But if any of the building's construction materials were capable of producing electricity from renewable sources, without relying on weather conditions and using environmentally friendly materials, this would be a way for large buildings to generate their own electricity without altering their stunning aesthetics.
This team of scientists could be on the verge of achieving something like this, their research aims to expand the capabilities of wood as a building material, to have completely new applications, and has recently presented a simple and environmentally friendly process to generate electricity from a type of treated wood that behaves almost like a sponge. This was reported in the journal Science Advances.
Electricity from deformation
To generate electricity from wood, a principle known as the piezoelectric effect is used, which is nothing more than the ability of certain solids to create electrical voltage through their elastic deformation. This is an effect widely used in structure sensors to generate a signal when a mechanical load is applied, but the materials they are made of do not allow them to be used as biosensors on the skin, since most of them contain lead salts, and their recycling or elimination is very complicated due to the lead and cobalt they usually contain.
However, by means of a biological process that uses fungi to partially eliminate the lignin in the wood, the element that makes it rigid, a biologically modified wood has been obtained that is more compressible, so the resulting wood is composed of thin layers of wood that can be squeezed and expanded again.
Thanks to the piezoelectric effect, this wood with sponge structure produces electric voltage when compressed. Image by @emiliomoron.
The research team then subjected a 1.5 cm side-length wooden test cube to a loading cycle, and at each compression they were able to measure 0.63 V, enough to be used as sensors. In addition, the team demonstrated that 30 of these blocks connected in parallel and compressed to the body weight of an adult could light up a small LCD display. With these results, it is possible to develop a floor made of this wood that would be able to generate electricity through the deformation caused by people walking on it.
Although the researchers say that there are still many steps to be taken before a piezoelectric wood floor can be used as an energy generator, the advantages of such a simple and biodegradable system are obvious. Future buildings could be energy neutral and generate their own electricity without sacrificing their aesthetic appearance.
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