Wearable computers or devices have been hailed as the next generation of mobile electronic gadgets, from smart watches to smart glasses to smart pacemakers. For electronics to be worn by a user, they must be light, flexible, and equipped with a power source, which could be a portable, long-lasting battery or no battery at all but a generator.
How to supply power in a stable and reliable manner is one of the most critical issues to commercialise wearable devices. A team of KAIST researchers headed by Byung Jin Cho, a professor of electrical engineering, proposed a solution to this problem by developing a glass fabric-based thermoelectric (TE) generator.
To date, two types of TE generators have been developed based either on organic or inorganic materials. The organic-based TE generators use polymers that are highly flexible and compatible with human skin, ideal for wearable electronics. The polymers, however, have a low power output. Inorganic-based TE generators produce a high electrical energy, but they are heavy, rigid, and bulky.
Professor Cho came up with a new concept and design technique to build a flexible TE generator that minimises thermal energy loss but maximises power output. His team synthesised liquid-like pastes of n-type (Bi2Te3) and p-type (Sb2Te3) TE materials and printed them onto a glass fabric by applying a screen printing technique.
The pastes permeated through the meshes of the fabric and formed films of TE materials in a range of thickness of several hundreds of microns. As a result, hundreds of TE material dots (in combination of n and p types) were printed and well arranged on a specific area of the glass fabric.
Professor Cho explained that his TE generator has a self-sustaining structure, eliminating thick external substrates (usually made of ceramic or alumina) that hold inorganic TE materials. These substrates have taken away a great portion of thermal energy, a serious setback which causes low output power.
“For our case, the glass fabric itself serves as the upper and lower substrates of a TE generator, keeping the inorganic TE materials in between. This is quite a revolutionary approach to design a generator. In so doing, we were able to significantly reduce the weight of our generator (~0.13g/cm2), which is an essential element for wearable electronics.”
When using KAIST’s TE generator (with a size of 10 cm x 10 cm) for a wearable wristband device, it will produce around 40 mW electric power based on the temperature difference of 31 °F between human skin and the surrounding air.
Professor Cho further described about the merits of the new generator:
“Our technology presents an easy and simple way of fabricating an extremely flexible, light, and high-performance TE generator. We expect that this technology will find further applications in scale-up systems such as automobiles, factories, aircrafts, and vessels where we see abundant thermal energy being wasted.”
This research result was published online in the March 14th issue of Energy & Environmental Science and was entitled “Wearable Thermoelectric Generator Fabricated on Glass Fabric.”