UL researchers squeeze low-cost electricity from sustainable biomaterial

UL Biochemical
Sarah Guerin, UL

Research could lead to new power sources for phones, remote controls and more

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5 December 2017 | 0

Mobile phone speakers and motion detectors in cars and video games may soon be powered by electricity generated from low cost and sustainable biomaterials, according to research carried out at University of Limerick (UL), Ireland.

Scientists at UL’s Bernal Institute have discovered that the biomolecule glycine, when tapped or squeezed, can generate enough electricity to power electrical devices in an economically viable and environmentally sustainable way. The research was published in the international journal Nature Materials.

Glycine is the simplest amino acid. It occurs in practically all agro and forestry residues. It can be produced at less than one per cent of the cost of currently used piezoelectric materials.

Piezoelectric materials generate electricity in response to pressure, and vice versa. They are widely used in cars, phones, and remote controls for games consoles. Unlike glycine, these materials are 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 lead author and Science Foundation Ireland funded post-graduate researcher at the Depat of Physics and the Bernal Institute, UL, Sarah Guerin.

“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,” she added, “and we produced electricity just by tapping them.”

Co-author of the paper and Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Medical Devices (Curam) investigator Prof Tofail Syed said: “We also have a patent pending that translates our findings to applications such as biodegradable power generation, devices detecting diseases inside of the body and physiologically controlled drug pumps.”

Previously, Bernal scientists discovered piezoelectricity in the globular protein lysozyme, found in tears, egg-white and saliva, and hydroxyapatite, a component of bone.

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