Public Release: 

Researchers generate electricity from low-cost biomaterial

Irish researchers squeeze low-cost electricity from sustainable biomaterial

University of Limerick

Mobile phone speakers and motion detectors in cars and video games may soon be powered by electricity generated from low cost and sustainable biomaterials, according to research carried out at University of Limerick (UL), Ireland.

Scientists at UL's Bernal Institute have discovered that the biomolecule glycine, when tapped or squeezed, can generate enough electricity to power electrical devices in an economically viable and environmentally sustainable way. The research was published on December 4, 2017 in leading international journal Nature Materials.

Glycine is the simplest amino acid. It occurs in practically all agro and forestry residues. It can be produced at less than one per cent of the cost of currently used piezoelectric materials.

Piezoelectric materials generate electricity in response to pressure, and vice versa. They are widely used in cars, phones, and remote controls for games consoles. Unlike glycine, these materials are normally synthetic and often contain toxic elements such as lead or lithium.

"It is really exciting that such a tiny molecule can generate so much electricity," said lead author Sarah Guerin, a post-graduate student at the Department of Physics and the Bernal Institute, UL.

"We used computer models to predict the electrical response of a wide range of crystals and the glycine number was off the charts. We then grew long, narrow crystals of glycine in alcohol," she added, "and we produced electricity just by tapping them."

Sarah's PhD supervisor Dr Damien Thompson, adds, "The predictive models we are developing can save years of trial-and-error lab work. The modelling data tells us what kinds of crystals to grow and where best to cut and press those crystals to generate electricity."

Co-author and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Centre for Medical Devices (CURAM) investigator Professor Tofail Syed said: "We also have a pending patent that translates our findings to applications such as biodegradable power generation, devices detecting diseases inside of the body and physiologically controlled drug pumps".

Previously, Bernal scientists discovered piezoelectricity in the globular protein lysozyme, found in tears, egg-white and saliva, and hydroxyapatite, a component of bone.

"The current finding extends the technology towards pragmatic, low-cost, renewable sources for electricity generation," according to Professor Luuk van der Wielen, Director of the Bernal Institute and Bernal Professor of Biosystems Engineering and Design. "The finding translates the earlier Bernal scientists' world-leading contribution in bio-piezoelectricity towards a large-scale and affordable application potential."

Professor Edmond Magner, Dean of Science and Engineering at UL, said: "UL's Department of Physics and Bernal Institute researchers continue to pioneer the use of biological crystals for electrical applications. This work places them at the forefront in the development of bio-piezoelectric devices".

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The full paper, Control of Piezoelectricity in Amino Acids by Supramolecular Packing, by Sarah Guerin, Aimee Stapleton, Drahomir Chovan, Rabah Mouras, Matthew Gleeson, Cian McKeown, Mohamed R Noor, Christophe Silien, Fernando M F Rhen, Andrei L Kholkin, Ning Liu, Tewfik Soulimane, Syed A M Tofail, and Damien Thompson, is published in Nature Materials, December 4, 2017.

For further information, photographs or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Nicola Corless
Communications Officer
University of Limerick
Nicola.Corless@ul.ie

Notes to the editor:

Funding:

This publication has emanated from research conducted with the financial support of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), and is co-funded under the European Regional Development Fund under Grant Number 13/RC/2073.

About Sarah Guerin:

Sarah Guerin, from Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland, is a final year PhD student at the University of Limerick. Her research uses a combination of quantum mechanical calculations and advanced characterisation techniques to develop the next generation of single crystal piezoelectric technologies. In August 2015 she graduated with a first class honours degree in Applied Physics. She completed her undergraduate internship at Analog Devices International, going on to complete her undergraduate thesis with the company.

About University of Limerick:

University of Limerick, Ireland, with more than 14,000 students and 1,400 staff is an energetic and enterprising institution with a proud record of innovation and excellence in education, research and scholarship. The dynamic, entrepreneurial and pioneering values which drive UL's mission and strategy ensures that it capitalises on local, national and international engagement and connectivity.

About the Bernal Institute:

The Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick was established in 2016 and is comprised of more than 300 researchers in applied science and engineering. The Institute's research focuses on advanced materials, manufacturing and process engineering. The Institute is housed in 20,000 square meters of high-quality, multi-purpose research space and has received over €100 million in capital investment. The Bernal Institute is named after John Desmond Bernal, who was born in Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland and was one of the most influential scientists of the 20th Century. He pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography in molecular biology.

About Curam:

Curam is a Science Foundation Ireland academic-industry-clinical 'super centre' designing the next generation of 'smart' medical devices. With six academic partners and more than 24 industry partners, Curam is establishing a global hub of research expertise in medical device technology. Curam's innovative approach incorporates biomaterials and drug delivery, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, glycoscience and device design to enhance, develop and validate both traditional and new combinational medical devices from molecular design to device manufacturing.

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