Image: University of Texas
Tiny, nigh-invisible power sources are becoming a powerful fixture in electronics research. From piezoelectrics that charge gadgets with tiny personal movements to smartphones that soak up natural and artificial light, engineers are looking for efficiency gains on increasingly small levels.
So, you're looking at a nickel alloy wind turbine that's approximately 1.8 milimeters in diameter. It is, as far as we know, the smallest working windmill yet constructed. Here, it's being spun by a tiny gust of wind, pushed by something as slight as the wave of a hand or a human exhalation.
Researchers at the University of Texas think that whole farms of these tiny wind turbines—10 can fit on a single grain of rice—will eventually be able to generate enough power to juice a smartphone, or even buildings' lighting and electronics systems.
According to the scientists' statement, the engineer behind the project, J.C. Chiao, says that "because of the small sizes, flat panels with thousand of windmills could be made and mounted on the walls of houses or building to harvest energy for lighting, security or environmental sensing and wireless communication."
That would mean erecting a whole hell of a lot of turbines. Millions of them. You'd need a lot less—but still a lot—to run a smartphone, so that's the nearer-term goal.
“Imagine that they can be cheaply made on the surfaces of portable electronics, so you can place them on a sleeve for your smart phone. When the phone is out of battery power, all you need to do is to put on the sleeve, wave the phone in the air for a few minutes and you can use the phone again.”
Eventually, as Gizmodo's Robert Soronkovich suggests, "she could design a case that aims the windmills below the user's chin, so you could charge up your phone simply by talking on it." Sure, it seems a little infeasible, as manufacturing millions of tiny wind turbines doesn't seem like the most efficient way to produce power. But such is one possible future: exhaling onto your iphone could keep its battery running.