Researchers working on floors that generate electricity from footsteps

Feet on timber floors
Image: Shutterstock

Scientists are working on an unexpected source to generate electricity, using a combination of footsteps, wooden floors and silicone to generate enough electrical power to light up LED bulbs and small electronics.

The energy-harvesting device, known as a nanogenerator, uses timber embedded with nano-crystals and silicon coating. The timber pieces become electronically charged due to contact and separation when stepped on—a phenomenon known as the triboelectric effect.

Materials that lose electrons are known as tribo-positive and those which gain electrons are known as tribo-negative. Wood is a tribo-neutral material.

Senior study author Guido Panzarasa from Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology Dübendorf says the challenge lies in making wood able to attract and lose electrons.

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“The functionalisation approach is quite simple, and it can be scalable on an industrial level,” he added, calling it “a matter of engineering”.

After experimenting with different types of wood, researchers discovered that radially cut spruce wood, which is commonly used for construction in Europe, was capable of generating 80 times more electricity than natural wood.

Now Panzarasa and his team want to optimise the nanogenerator using chemical coatings that are more eco-friendly and easier to implement, with the ultimate goal being to enable wood floors with new properties for future sustainable smart buildings.

The nanogenerator is seen as efficient, sustainable, and scalable, while it also could help mitigate climate change by sequestering CO2 from the environment throughout the wood’s lifespan.

The full research paper is published in the journal Matter.