Cheap metamaterials could charge cellphones by converting wifi signals to power with 37% efficiency

Using inexpensive materials configured and tuned to capture microwave signals, researchers at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering have designed a power-harvesting device with efficiency similar to that of modern solar panels.

It operates on a similar principle to solar panels, which convert light energy into electrical current. But this versatile energy harvester could be tuned to harvest the signal from other energy sources, including satellite signals, sound signals or Wi-Fi signals, the researchers say.

The key to the power harvester lies in its application of metamaterials, engineered structures that can capture various forms of wave energy and tune them for useful applications.

With additional modifications, the researchers said the power-harvesting metamaterial could potentially be built into a cell phone, allowing the phone to recharge wirelessly while not in use. This feature could, in principle, allow people living in locations without ready access to a conventional power outlet to harvest energy from a nearby cell phone tower instead.

“Our work demonstrates a simple and inexpensive approach to electromagnetic power harvesting,” said Cummer. “The beauty of the design is that the basic building blocks are self-contained and additive. One can simply assemble more blocks to increase the scavenged power.”

This five-cell metamaterial array developed by Duke engineers converts stray microwave energy, as from a WiFi hub, into more than 7 volts of power with an efficiency of 36.8 percent—comparable to a solar cell.

“Our work demonstrates a simple and inexpensive approach to electromagnetic power harvesting,” said Cummer. “The beauty of the design is that the basic building blocks are self-contained and additive. One can simply assemble more blocks to increase the scavenged power.”

For example, a series of power-harvesting blocks could be assembled to capture the signal from a known set of satellites passing overhead, the researchers explained. The small amount of energy generated from these signals might power a sensor network in a remote location such as a mountaintop or desert, allowing data collection for a long-term study that takes infrequent measurements.

Applied Physics Letters – A microwave metamaterial with integrated power harvesting functionality

We present the design and experimental implementation of a power harvesting metamaterial. A maximum of 36.8% of the incident power from a 900 MHz signal is experimentally rectified by an array of metamaterial unit cells. We demonstrate that the maximum harvested power occurs for a resistive load close to 70 Ω in both simulation and experiment. The power harvesting metamaterial is an example of a functional metamaterial that may be suitable for a wide variety of applications that require power delivery to any active components integrated into the metamaterial.

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