Highways, train stations, and even dance floors: the world is full of vibrating surfaces that could yield a rich trove of clean, sustainable energy. It’s called piezoelectric energy, formed by the conversion of mechanical strain into electrical current. Now a team of researchers in Europe has developed a micro-scaled piezoelectric device that could harvest energy from machinery as well as from infrastructure and buildings.

The tiny devices are ideal for use in powering remote sensing equipment, for example to monitor bridges or machines for early signs of deterioration. In that case they could play a key role in more energy efficient maintenance for wind turbines and other renewable energy infrastructure, while lowering human risk.

Wind turbines present some pretty challenging maintenance and repair issues. Aside from the element of human risk in climbing the turbines, sending out teams and inspection equipment to remote locations (including offshore locations) can burn through a lot of energy. An onsite, realtime, self-sustaining piezoelectric monitoring device could save unnecessary trips while identifying small problems long before they develop into big ones.

The new device was developed by a partnership that included the European nanotechnology research institute IMEC and Holst Centre, an independent research institute specializing in wireless technology. About the size of a die, the multi-layered device was made with MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) technologies that permitted the partners to engineer a durable, wafer-scale package. One important advantage of the new device is its use of aluminum nitride, rather than the lead-based material used in conventional piezoelectric devices (lead is a known health hazard). Aluminum nitride is also easier to process. With at least one other research team developing a lead alternative, it could only be a matter of time before lead-free piezoelectric devices become a commonplace feature in infrastructure, factories, buildings, and vehicles.

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