It is believed that converting heat to electricity is only for solid materials such as crystals. However, the researchers, by analogy with the infrared (IR) vision of snakes, have developed a mathematical model for transforming soft organic structures into so-called “pyroelectric” materials. The research is published in the journal Matter.
The process of converting heat into electrical impulse is called “pyroelectric”. This property is usually found only in solid, inflexible materials. The conundrum is how can snakes sensitive to infrared radiation achieve the conversion of heat into electricity?
Vipers and other snakes are well known for their sensitivity to heat. In fact, the infrared vision of the pit viper is so acute that “if the animal appears in pitch darkness, even half a second 40 centimeters away, the pit viper can detect it.”
This ability exists through a structure called the fossa organ, a hollow chamber next to the snake’s nostrils that contain a thin flexible membrane.
The pit organ plays an important role in converting heat into a signal that they can detect. The missing piece of the equation, however, was how neural cells within the membrane of the fossil organ convert the heat signature into electricity to create this signal. <…> In addition to the more sophisticated design elements to make a pyroelectric soft material, all you need is to build static stable charges into the material and make sure they don’t leak. Then you have to make sure that the material is soft enough so that it can deform a lot in shape and size and is sensitive to temperature. If you do this, they will act as pyroelectric, which is what we were able to prove in our model. And we believe that this is what nature uses because this process is simple and reliable.
Pradeep Sharma, M.D. Anderson, professor, and chair of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston
The team plans to continue their research on the soft matter in order to generate electricity exclusively from a magnetic field. With enough research, they hope to inspire scientists to develop pyro, piezo, and magnetoelectric soft materials to expand the possibilities of generating electricity.