What else can we do towards an energy sustainable world, beside keep building solar cells and wind turbines?

Energy harvesting would lead us towards truly circular economy.

In history human’s economy is linear. For example we mine the fossil fuel, combust them to generate electricity or get mechanical power we want, and then dispose the pollution into the environment and forget about it.

Nowadays, we realise that we have to do some circular economy. In my field, it means we generate electricity from renewable and green energy sources. So we invented solar panels and wind turbines. But does these mean we are really doing a circular job by using these green electricity? Have you thought about what to do with the wasted energy generated by these so called green power?

The manufacturing of solar panels and wind turbines will consume a lot of energy. There will be waste heat, vibration and noise dissipated. When generating electricity under the sun, solar panels will generate heat as well. But we don’t really use these heat. Similarly, wind turbines will generate vibration and noise. Unfortunately, we just dispose these kinds of waste energy beside green energy into the environment again. This seems not very circular, because the total amount of wasted energy is incredibly huge. They are even equal to the green energy we want to generate.

Now with the novel and ubiquitous energy harvesting technology, we are able to collect the wasted energy and transfer them into usable electricity!

The emerging energy harvesting technology – How big we can think?

The wasted energy is just a tiny corner of the total amount of wasted energy around us. Your body, your car, your home, everything generates wasted energy. They can in turn charge your electric car and even power your home if we can find a way to collect them all.

So that’s why my research is dealing with the energy harvesting technology. That means we try to collect the wasted energy around us and generate electricity whenever and wherever you want. In laboratory, we deal with very small issues, from atoms to molecules.

But we think big. It is our dream that someday we are able to collect all wasted energy in the environment. They are small. You don’t notice them, you can’t see them, and sometimes you don’t even feel them, because they are distributed everywhere around us. However, they will contribute to a truly circular economy.

Discovery and development of the next generation energy harvesting materials – what do they mean?

Following the KNBNNO I have found about a year ago, further progresses have been made. The so called KNBNNO (Potassium (K) – Sodium (Na) – Barium (Ba) – Nickel (Ni) – Niobate (NbO3)) can convert sunlight, temperature variation and impact/vibration/movement into electricity at the same time, all in one piece of the material. Nearly a year has passed since its first discovery. Now the material has been further investigated in our laboratory, from a new composition which is mysterious and difficult to synthesise or control, to a better understood energy harvesting material which enables both relevant curiosity-driven and application-oriented research topics. By investigating the KNBNNO, we can foresee a brighter future of the next generation solar cells which can harvest not only sunlight but also wasted heat and vibration all together. We are also trying to make some thin layers which can be the top lamination of smart phone or watch screens. When you tap the screen, relax on grass with your device on a sunny day, and even step indoors and outdoors frequently, you will be charging your device all the time.

Cool? Do you like the idea of ubiquitous, wireless, completely free and green electronic device charging?

Yang Bai is a researcher of Microelectronics Research Unit, University of Oulu. He is also a committee member of the IOP (Institute of Physics, UK) Energy Group and member of the IOP Finland Chapter. He has been granted a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship under EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme in 2016. He received his Bachelor of Engineering degree in 2011 at Tianjin University, China. He then received his Ph. D. degree in 2015 at University of Birmingham, UK. He specialises in functional materials, piezoelectric and ferroelectric materials, multi-functional materials and energy harvesting technology.

More details about Yang Bai and his research activities can be found in Yang Bai's website.

Energy Catcher video