Zhong Lin Wang thinks piezoelectric nanowires could power implantable medical devices and serve as tiny sensors.
Nanoscale sensors are exquisitely sensitive, very frugal with power, and, of course, tiny. They could be useful in detecting molecular signs of disease in the blood, minute amounts of poisonous gases in the air, and trace contaminants in food. But the batteries and integrated circuits necessary to drive these devices make them difficult to fully miniaturize. The goal of Zhong Lin Wang, a materials scientist at Georgia Tech, is to bring power to the nano world with minuscule generators that take advantage of piezoelectricity. If he succeeds, biological and chemical nano sensors will be able to power themselves.
The piezoelectric effect–in which crystalline materials under mechanical stress produce an electrical potential–has been known of for more than a century. But in 2005, Wang was the first to demonstrate it at the nanoscale by bending zinc oxide nanowires with the probe of an atomic-force microscope. As the wires flex and return to their original shape, the potential produced by the zinc and oxide ions drives an electrical current. The current that Wang coaxed from the wires in his initial experiments was tiny; the electrical potential peaked at a few millivolts. But Wang rightly suspected that with enough engineering, he could design a practical nanoscale power source by harnessing the tiny vibrations all around us–sound waves, the wind, even the turbulence of blood flow over an implanted device. These subtle movements would bend nanowires, generating electricity.