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The next big renewable energy source could be at our feet

Flooring can be made from any number of sustainable materials, making it, generally, an eco-friendly feature in homes and businesses alike.

Now, flooring could be even more “green,” thanks to an inexpensive, simple method developed by University of Wisconsin-Madison materials engineers that allows them to convert footsteps into usable electricity.

Xudong Wang, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at UW-Madison, his graduate student Chunhua Yao, and their collaborators published details of the advance Sept. 24 in the journal Nano Energy.

The method puts to good use a common waste material: wood pulp. The pulp, which is already a common component of flooring, is partly made of cellulose nanofibers. They’re tiny fibers that, when chemically treated, produce an electrical charge when they come into contact with untreated nanofibers.

When the nanofibers are embedded within flooring, they’re able to produce electricity that can be harnessed to power lights or charge batteries. And because wood pulp is a cheap, abundant and renewable waste product of several industries, flooring that incorporates the new technology could be as affordable as conventional materials.

While there are existing similar materials for harnessing footstep energy, they’re costly, nonrecyclable, and impractical at a large scale.

Wang’s research centers around using vibration to generate electricity. For years, he has been testing different materials in an effort to maximize the merits of a technology called a triboelectric nanogenerator (TENG). Triboelectricity is the same phenomenon that produces static electricity on clothing. Chemically treated cellulose nanofibers are a simple, low-cost and effective alternative for harnessing this broadly existing mechanical energy source, Wang says.

The UW-Madison team’s advance is the latest in a green energy research field called “roadside energy harvesting” that could, in some settings, rival solar power — and it doesn’t depend on fair weather. Researchers like Wang who study roadside energy harvesting methods see the ground as holding great renewable energy potential well beyond its limited fossil fuel reserves.

“Roadside energy harvesting requires thinking about the places where there is abundant energy we could be harvesting,” Wang says. “We’ve been working a lot on harvesting energy from human activities. One way is to build something to put on people, and another way is to build something that has constant access to people. The ground is the most-used place.”

Heavy traffic floors in hallways and places like stadiums and malls that incorporate the technology could produce significant amounts of energy

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