Carbon nanotubes could let mobile devices use humans for power, just like The Matrix

Generating power from temperature differences is cheap but not yet practical for phones, iPods

Researchers at Wake Forest University are using cutting-edge carbon nanotube designs to turn active, mobile, non-coma-dreaming humans into the heat source that will generate power for their cell phones.

If you'll remember, that was the central assumption of TheMatrix (it was central to the plot, but tertiary in the concept behind the movie, right behind "We can make Keanu look cool with CGI" and "Lots of fanboys will pay to watch Carrie Anne Moss in skintight vinyl.")

Their research, which appears in the current version of Nano Letters led to the development of a material called Power Felt that is made of carbon nanotubes wrapped in plastic fibers designed to feel like fabric.

It creates a charge by exploiting differences in temperature between segments of the wearer's body, or between the body and cooler air around it.

Humans "waste a lot of energy as heat," according to Wake Forest graduate student Corey Hewitt, who helped research and write a paper on power-generating result of thermoelectric effect.

Most thermoelectric power-generating devices use Bismuth telluride, which is much more efficient than carbon nanotubes but can cost as much as $1,000 per kilogram. Power Felt, by comparison, could cost as little as $1 to the cost of a case on a smartphone.

The nanotube fabric used by the team stacks 72 layers of fabric to generate 140 nanowatts of power.

Other potential applications include wrapping it around a flashlight or other small device to power them during blackouts, or putting it in a coat to power personal electronics using the differing heat levels inside a coat and the cold outside according David Carroll, director of the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials.

Real, practical use is still some time off, though. Hewitt goes along with the use cases described by Carroll, but says the ability to power even something as small as an iPod is still some time off, though it is "definitely within reach."

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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