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Georgia Tech Scientist Honored for Energy Research

It’s been eight years since Zhong Lin Wang launched pioneering research into triboelectric nanogenerators, effectively creating an entirely new field of study into materials that produce  an electrical charge when in motion.

This week, Wang, the Hightower Chair and Regents’ Professor in the Georgia Tech School of Materials Science and Engineering, was named the winner of the Eni Award for Energy Frontiers.

The award is one of three awarded each year by the Italian-based oil and gas company Eni, which established the prize a decade ago with a goal of being similar to the Nobel prize for energy. The award  recognizes researchers who have made significant contributions to the industry.

Wang’s research uncovered a new pathway to harvesting energy from a variety of sources such as wind, ocean currents or sound vibrations.

“This is a great honor for me and recognition of the tremendous potential we have to capture the random mechanical energy that surrounds us every day,” Wang said. “Triboelectric nanogenerators have broad applications for harvesting energy from human activities such as rotating tires, mechanical vibration and more, with great applications in self-powered systems for personal electronics, environmental monitoring, and medical.”

The triboelectric  nanogenerators, which are fabricated  from layers of plastic and metal, use a combination of the triboelectric effect and electrostatic induction to generate small amount of electrical power from mechanical motion such as rotation, sliding or vibration.

Wang’s team in recent years has demonstrated the use of the triboelectric nanogenerators in applications such as a fabric that creates energy when in motion and a self-powered  computer keyboard.

Wang, who joined Georgia Tech in 1995, has long focused his research into small things that make a big impact. After researching carbon nanotubes, he shifted to zinc oxide nanowires and nanobelts. The latter formed the foundation of another discovery, the piezoelectric nanogenerator, which also captures mechanical energy generated from bending the zinc oxide material.

“These self-powered nanosystems have applications not just in powering small Internet of Things devices such as wearable electronics, but also have the potential to make a significant impact in addressing societal challenges on a large scale – such as using triboelectric nanogenerators to harvest energy from ocean waves, which, unlike solar energy, could be more reliable and less dependent on whether it’s day or night, or whether it’s sunny or cloudy.”

The award will be presented on October 22 at the Quirinal Palace in Rome.