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The Future of Battery-Free ‘Smart Toys’

Researchers from Jeju National University in South Korea believe that the next big thing in children’s electronics will involve saying goodbye to batteries. Using specialized nanogenerators, some of your favorite childhood toys could transform into battery-free smart toys. This discovery has the potential for a wide variety of commercial applications, including battery-free toys, self-powered medical sensors, and a host of other devices.

The toys work thanks to the use of nanogenerators. These nanogenerators are installed in a toy (such as a rubber duck). The device gathers energy through mechanical vibrations. The energy is then used to turn an otherwise ordinary toy into a unique smart toy with a variety of features.

Triboelectric nanogenerators (TENGs) have a number of abilities that make them excellent alternatives to batteries. These nanogenerators gather electrical charges that come from friction. They then amplify and convert the biochemical energy into a form of energy that can be used by the device. Unfortunately, there have been some roadblocks to this work: low energy storage and conversion difficulties have prevented TENGs from being commercially viable. That’s what scientists sought to change with this new breed of smart toys.

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Researchers designed TENGs, using aluminum electrodes and a silicone-like film to separate them. The TENGs were then installed into clapping hand toys and rubber ducks. As the toys were shaken or squeezed by enthusiastic children, the movement caused the electrodes to come into contact with and then separate from the film. This movement would create an electric charge. The electric charge activates the TENGs, which harvest the biomechanical energy the action creates. When enough of the energy is acquired, a number of LED lights attached to the toys are illuminated — much to the children’s delight.

Besides entertaining children (without having to worry if the battery will die on their favorite toy), the nanogenerators are ecologically sound. They’re also durable, which is an important factor when it comes to children’s toys. Scientists believe that because of this research, commercially-viable battery-free toys could soon become available.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg for this compelling technology; a whole host of sensors, including those for medical use, will benefit from these discoveries.

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