Let water power your cell phone?

October 19, 2003

A team of researchers in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta (U of A) has discovered a new way of generating electricity from flowing water. It may soon be possible to never have to charge up a cellular phone again instead, the phone could be fitted with a battery that uses pressurized water.

Research published today by the Institute of Physics journal, Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering reveals a new method of generating electric power by harnessing the natural electrokinetic properties of a liquid, such as ordinary tap water, when it is pumped through tiny microchannels. The research team in Edmonton, Canada, has created a new source of clean non-polluting electric power with a variety of possible uses, ranging from powering small electronic devices to contributing to a national power grid.

The research, led by U of A professors Daniel Kwok and Larry Kostiuk, started as a simple conversation between Kostiuk, a thermodynamicist, and Kwok, a nanofabrication researcher. With the assistance of two graduate students, who benefited first-hand from the teachings of their supervisors, the team was able to illuminate a real light bulb by exploiting the coupling between electrokinetic phenomena and the hydrodynamics of liquid flow.

"This discovery has a huge number of possible applications," said Kostiuk. "It could be a new alternative energy source to rival wind and solar power although this would need huge bodies of water to work on a commercial scale. Hydrocarbon fuels are still the best source of energy but they're fast running out and so new options like this one could be vital in the future.

"This technology could provide a new power source for devices such as mobile phones or calculators which could be charged up by pumping water to high pressure."

Although the power generated from a single channel is extremely small, millions of parallel channels can be used to increase the power output. More work will be needed to further understand this new means to produce power.

Dr. David T. Lynch, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, praised the mechanical engineering team for rigor and creativity. "The discovery of an entirely new way of producing power is an incredible fundamental research breakthrough that occurs only once in a lifetime. This groundbreaking discovery will earn these engineering researchers and the University of Alberta a place of prominence in scientific journals and textbooks for decades to come and may find significant applications in numerous commercial areas."

The environmental benefit of clean energy conversion using safe, renewable materials is motivating the team to explore how their prototypical device may be developed into a battery for eventual commercial use. The inventors are working with the U of A's Technology Transfer Group (TTG) to develop a commercialization strategy for the groundbreaking work. A patent application has been filed by the university to obtain broad, early protection of the invention. The TTG is conducting an in-depth evaluation of the market opportunities.
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The University of Alberta's Faculty of Engineering (in Edmonton, Canada) is among North America's leading engineering research and teaching centres with 4,200 students, 20 research chairs, $50 million in annual research activity, over 160 new professors, several new buildings, and outstanding facilities. Visit www.engineering.ualberta.ca for further information.

University of Alberta

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