Sigi Karg: Using Nanotech and the Human Body to Power Gadgets       


Sigi Karg: Using Nanotech and the Human Body to Power Gadgets - overview

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Audio: Using Nanotech and the Human Body to Power Gadgets SOUNDCLOUD, mp3

Interviewee: Siegfried F. Karg, IBM Research, Zurich Research Laboratory

Duration: 4 minutes, 44 seconds

Siegfried KargTranscript


Thermoelectric energy has served us well since 1821 when Thomas Johann Seebeck found that a thermal gradient between two different conductors produces voltage. That was then. In this episode of Inside IBM Research, IBM Zurich researcher Sigi Karg (pictured right) talks about how he and his colleagues are using nanotechnology now to make thermoelectric energy efficient enough to power medical devices and wearable gadgets.


I work for IBM here in Rüschlikon for fifteen years. I’ve been working on different projects, starting with organic light-emitting displays, and then later on we were talking about memories based on oxides, where I was working together with Georg Bednorz, our Nobel Laureate. And then I turned gears and went into the nano-wire area, where I still am. Then we have different projects and one of them is the thermoelectric project on nano-wire devices.

We make devices that turn heat into electrical energy just by a solid state device. So, this device is called the thermoelectric generator. It’s inverse. It’s known as a thermoelectric cooler. And it’s a pretty simple device. You just take a piece of semiconductor and hold one end into a heated heat sink and the other one into a hot reservoir. And just by doing this, you will be able to gain electrical energy out of this.

The principle is known. It’s widely used, for instance, in space applications. If you remember the Voyager’s mission of the 1970s. This was running for thirty or thirty-five years with electrical heat converted by a thermoelectric generator. So it’s a very robust and very reliable tool. So, it has no moving parts other than a heat engine. So, you don’t need to maintain it as a car engine, for instance. The drawback is: It is not so efficient.

So, we have now come up with some new ideas and new ways how to make it more efficient in the lab using nanotechnology methods.

We have made nano-wires so thin that electrons can pass only one by one, in a single line through this. So, there’s no way for the electrons to pass — we call this a one-dimensional electron transport. And with this, the electron can transfer more energy through this nano-wire, and so more power is generated.

So, we are targeting energy-harvesting devices with this. This means using abundant heat sources to generate energy. And in particular, we want to use the human body as an energy source to power mobile devices, sensors from heat generated by the body. We just want to use the temperature gradient between your 37 degrees, okay, skin is a little bit less, and the outside temperature around 20 degrees. So we assume we have about ten degrees of a temperature difference. And that’s what we want to utilize. 

So, we would wear a pad that’s connected to your skin, maybe also woven into the clothes you wear. And also the sensor would be then on that pad. And then probably a wireless connection to your mobile phone that transmits the data.

And as such we are targeting devices that are flexible, easy to wear, that we can use to power, for instance, for medical devices and small gadgets around.


You can read an abstract of “One-dimensional behavior and high thermoelectric power factor in thin indium arsenide nanowires” by visiting Sigi Karg’s IBM Researcher web page.

You’ve been listening to Inside IBM Research. I’m your host Barbara Finkelstein at IBM Watson. Our series producer is Chris Nay at IBM Austin. Our segment producer is Chris Sciacca at IBM Zurich. Our music is Happy Alley by Kevin MacLeod. Share this episode with colleagues and friends — and keep an ear out for our next episode.

Related links:

Sigi Karg’s IBM Researcher web page

One-dimensional behavior and high thermoelectric power factor in thin indium arsenide nanowires [AIP]


Last updated on June 22, 2015