Zinc's Novel Properties Opening Up New Technologies

Every now and then we come across an interesting (if slightly offbeat) application for metals that we feel deserves mention.

A research team led by Ganpati Ramanath, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia (no, you didn’t mis-read that — the University of Wollongong) have been working with zinc oxide to develop what are termed energy-harvesting technologies.

What on earth are they, you may reasonably ask? Well, an intriguing article in Resource Investing News explains these are technologies or devices developed to convert ambient or Ëœwaste’ energy”derived from sources as diverse as human power, bodily fluids, heat differences, vibration, or visible light”into electricity.

They are believed to be a central technology for the future of ‘smart’ technologies yes, that’s a vague term, but depending on who you listen to, it broadly means a range of technologies that operate in a semi- or fully automated manner, making everyday activities easier and critically reducing our impact on the environment. In this case, Ramanath and his team are looking to develop zinc oxide’s electrical conductivity and its ability to take waste, heat or movement to create an electrical current. For example, zinc oxide wires have been developed to power pacemakers from contractions of the heart.

Using techniques developed for nanotechnology, the team has increased zinc oxide’s ability to conduct electricity while simultaneously reducing its ability to conduct heat by baking the oxide with aluminum in a microwave oven. The resulting marble-sized pellets can be applied to a wide range of surfaces, opening up the possibility of recycling the heat generated from laptops, cell phones and TVs back into powering the same devices no, not infinite motion, but it would extend operating times between charges, as much of the power consumed is wasted as heat.

Zinc oxide currently accounts for about 9 percent of the total zinc consumption and is focused primarily in the production of tires, ceramic tiles, medicines and household paints. These new applications are some way from commercial exploitation — they may in time lead to a growing demand for the metal in addition to its much larger and more common galvanizing applications.

–Stuart Burns

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