The University of Southampton

Research collaboration with Merck presents disruptive opportunities for energy harvesting

Published: 6 September 2018
The new nanoscale materials contain piezoelectric properties that convert motion into an electrical charge.

Researchers in Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southampton are working on a nanoscale technology that could harvest power from our footsteps and unseen ambient energy in the environment.

Physicists are collaborating with industrial partner Merck to develop materials with piezoelectric properties that convert motion into an electrical charge. These advances could be used to enhance the output power of devices such as handheld displays, run autonomous sensors or even realise a future vision of portable renewable power sources.

Energy harvesting is a means of generating power from external sources and has great potential to impact society beyond its traditional uses in areas such as wind farming or solar energy.

“We are mostly focusing on ways of harvesting energy from mechanical motion,” Southampton’s Marcus Newton explains. “We’re working at a nanoscale level to define materials that generate sufficient power so that this disruptive technology could be used for a wide range of applications, including harvesting useful energy from everyday activities such as walking. If our research can produce the right device structure then we could harvest enough energy to power a portable device indefinitely. These could be very small because they are based on nanostructures and friendly to the environment since they wouldn’t contain lead.”

The current two-year industrial partnership is exploring potential new markets for novel materials being developed at Merck’s Chilworth Technical Centre based at the University of Southampton Science Park. Mark Goulding, Director at Merck Chemicals, values the interaction with Marcus and the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southampton. “When the University comes to us with an exciting new application for a materials class in which we have deep know-how and an interest to build business, it is exciting,” he says. “This collaboration has produced some very positive results for our materials.”

Marcus, the project’s academic supervisor, continues, “We identified similarities between our research and as a result can foresee that this knowledge transfer partnership will enhance Merck’s portfolio of materials as we open a new branch of research. We have had some promising results and we are now testing new materials in the device environment.”

The nanomaterials and devices being studied build on Marcus’ 20 years of experience in the field, which he is continuing in Southampton’s Computational Modelling Group. The research team includes postdoctoral research associate Charles Opoku and an undergraduate Masters student from the University of Nottingham.

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