Imagine if you could wrap a small, thin piece of transparent material around any surface and it would charge electronic devices such as your phone or laptop. Thanks to Army researchers, this idea could be a reality for future warfighters in combat.
A team led by Professor Tomás Palacios at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dr. Madan Dubey, a research physical scientist at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory, conducted game-changing study describing an antenna that can absorb Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular signals and efficiently turn it into usable electrical energy. Their work is published in the high-impact journal Nature.
“Today, Wi-Fi is becoming increasingly omnipresent in both indoor and outdoor environments and provides an abundant source of always-on radiofrequency energy,” Dubey said. “What’s missing is an efficient, flexible and always-on energy-harvesting solution to power devices, which is indispensable for self-powered systems. We have discovered a way to potentially fill this gap and to make it useful for Soldiers on the battlefield.”
Dubey said the invention has proven the potential for a conformal atomically thin layer of material for generation of power without any power cords using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and millimeter wave that is used in some 5G wireless communication systems.
“It has the potential to revolutionize Soldier’s situational awareness and readiness as these materials and devices can be integrated into health and monitoring systems, displays, communication and sensing systems for the Soldier,” Dubey said.
At the center of all of these components is a new revolutionary material, molybdenum-di-sulphide, or MoS2, which is only a few atoms thick. Its extreme thinness allows the electronics systems made out of it to be transparent, and only become visible when designed for displaying information.
“The technology is a game changer for the Army and Department of Defense as it will enable a transparent, flexible/conformal, self-powered, atomically thin system-on-chip embedded in smart textile that has never been realized before,” Dubey said. “These future systems will feature micron size, light-weight, optical transparency and state-of-the-art transistors and sensors to provide the Soldier with real time information, prepare for planning/action and security in all terrain. If the team’s radio wave-absorber succeeds, it will power those ever-present electronics 24/7, no battery needed.”
“The enabling technology is very critical for Army modernization formulation in Multi-Domain Operations,” Dubey said. “It will be a game-changer technology to power devices that will enable higher Soldier lethality, improve cognitive neuroscience and the novel engineered materials required for Next Generation Combat Vehicle.”
According to Dubey, this technology is a key building block to create, for example, an Alexa-like device that is 1,000 times smaller in size, but much more powerful in performance, while being flexible and conformable to meet mission requirements.
For Dubey, this research would not be as successful if it weren’t for the collaboration between the laboratory and MIT.
“MIT has been and continues to be a true and trusted partner with several successful proven achievements through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies,” Dubey said. “ARL has established a very strong collaboration and partnership through the visit/exchange of researchers and scientists participating at the bench level.”
The Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies is a team of MIT, Army and industry partners working together to discover and field technologies that dramatically advance Soldier protection and survivability capabilities.
The demonstrated energy harvester discussed here will have a huge impact in future systems, and is one of the several components that the MIT-Army team is jointly developing to transform the electronic microsystems that provide situational awareness and intelligence to the Soldier.