Could our next tech charging station be ... ourselves?

November 9, 2023 | By Joshua Farrington

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In Tech is our regular feature highlighting what people are talking about in the world of technology — everything from crypto and NFTs to smart cities and cybersecurity. 

Watching the battery indicator on your phone steadily tick downwards while you’re out and about and your charger is nowhere to be found is one of the most common anxieties of modern life.

For drivers who’ve made the shift to electric vehicles, keeping one eye on the battery and one on an app showing available charging locations (while keeping both eyes on the road, of course), can be another regular source of mild panic. We all love the freedom our electronic devices give us, but sooner or later, they usually just end up tying us down. 

Innovations like mobile power banks and wireless chargers have made the issue of recharging our devices faster and simpler over the years, but ultimately, they still need their downtime to get back up to 100%. With many of us now sporting a range of technology every day from phones and watches to headphones and even smart jewelry, it means a lot of cables and a lot of power outlets. And a lot of downtime. 

But new technology could help remove our reliance on traditional chargers. As reported in the latest issue of Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, novel ways of harvesting energy could eliminate a need for batteries entirely. 

Products such as “e-skin,” developed by Wei Gao and a team at the California Institute of Technology, have already moved through multiple iterations trying to find the ideal way to capture energy from the human body itself. The first version absorbed lactate from human sweat, combining it with oxygen in the air to produce electricity. A second prototype used thin layers of different materials such as Teflon and copper to harness kinetic energy from movement, generating power when the layers rub together. New models are making use of 3D printing technology to create “e-skin” that can power health-monitoring devices on the body. 

It's not just humans who stand to benefit. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, the Technical Institute of Denmark and the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior have been working on ways to power monitoring devices for wild animals, so they can track their movements and habits without the need to regularly recapture them.

Taking inspiration from traditional self-winding watch mechanisms, the team has also experimented with off-the-shelf products to see how effective they can be. While they’re optimistic about future success, their trials have run into some real-world issues. As researcher Troels Gregerson explained, their first attempt at fitting a tracking collar on a bison saw the collar being destroyed in short order. “They’re 900-kilo animals that run up against trees,” he pointed out. “It’s not a use case in human wearables.” 

Is it a briefcase? Is it a scooter? It’s a … Motocompacto. 

With charging tech working on powering wearables, it might be a while before we find ways to power entire vehicles with sources like body heat. But with some vehicles getting smaller and more power-efficient than ever before, we might get there sooner than we think.

The latest entrant to the personal mobility space is Honda, which recently let riders get hands-on with their latest innovation, the Motocompacto. Looking like a cross between a piece of luggage and a child’s bike, the Motocompacto is actually an electric vehicle that the Japanese automotive giant says belongs in “a category all of its own”. 

At less than four inches wide, 22 inches high and 30 inches long, the Motocompacto certainly takes up less space than most e-bikes. And with a max speed of 15 mph and range of 12 miles, it might be a tempting option for riders looking for new ways to navigate the urban environment.  

So what does the public think? Reviewers have already hailed it as “The most fun you can have at 15 mph” and “surprising fun in a small package.” All we need is for it be powered by human laughter, and it will be the perfect sustainable vehicle.  

Joshua Farrington, contributor