Flexible Device Harvests Thermal Energy to Power Wearables

Wearable electronics, from health and fitness trackers to virtual reality headsets, are part of our everyday lives. But finding ways to continuously power these devices is a challenge. University of Washington researchers have developed an innovative solution: the first-of-its kind flexible, wearable thermoelectric device that converts body heat to electricity. This device is soft and stretchable, yet sturdy and efficient — properties that can be challenging to combine.

“It’s a 100% gain if we harvest thermal energy that would otherwise be wasted to the surroundings. Because we want to use that energy for self-powered electronics, a higher power density is needed,” said Mohammad Malakooti, ​​a UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “We leverage additive manufacturing to fabricate stretchable electronics, increase their efficiency and enable their seamless integration into wearables while answering fundamental research questions.”

Even after more than 15,000 stretching cycles at 30% strain, the researchers’ prototype device remains fully functional, a highly desirable feature for wearable electronics and soft robotics. The device also shows a 6.5 times increase in power density compared to previous stretchable thermoelectric generators. For further information see the IDTechEx report on Thermoelectric Energy Harvesting and Other Zero-Emission Electricity from Heat 2022-2042.

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