How to 3D Print Your Own Triboelectric Generators

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A triboelectric nanogenerator (TENG) may sound like it requires an advanced degree in Starfleet Engineering, but it actually functions based on the same principle as rubbing a balloon on your head. Essentially, applying friction to certain materials can lead to a build-up of charges sufficient enough to create a brief burst of electricity. If done consistently, it can generate useful power.

As discussed in a recent paper by [Leo N.Y. Cao], [Erming Su], [Zijie Xu], and [Zhong Lin Wang], a functional TENG can be created using a regular desktop 3D printer. Interestingly, the procedure doesn’t seem to require anything too specialized — just some readily available filaments and a significant number of PTFE beads. Take a look at their paper for more information.

How can you print your own TENG? Start by using an electrically conductive PLA filament to create a foundation that incorporates a series of channels. Around the halfway point of the print, you need to insert your PTFE beads and then switch to standard filament for several layers to create an insulator. Lastly, you pause again and switch back to the conductive filament to encase the beads within the structure.

[Leo N.Y. Cao] demonstrates in a video how you can then connect leads to the top and bottom of your print and shake it. If all has gone to plan, LEDs connected to your new high-tech shaker should light up as the PTFE beads shift inside. However, bear in mind that while this produces high voltages, the current is low — according to the paper, a TENG with 60 beads could potentially generate pulses of up to 150 volts.

Naturally, you won’t get very far with just one of these. Like other energy harvesting concepts we’ve covered in the past, such as vibratory wind generators, it would take a bunch of these working together to generate a useful amount of power. But given how cheap and quickly these printable TENGs can be produced, that doesn’t seem like it would be too much of a challenge.

It would be exciting to place one of these on an engine. Utilizing the vibration of the engine to generate power.

Surely, drawing power directly from the engine would make more sense, but you might not want to do that.

Certainly, and you can use the harvested power to electrolyze water and create fuel for the engine. An endless source of free energy!

Does this plan involve using Horseshoe Crabs to generate electricity?

Nah just a load of tap dancers. *In my deepest vhs rental preview voice* “In a post apocalyptic world the riverdancer is king.”

How does the polarity of the individual beads line up? If some are +/-, and others are -/+, won’t some beads be working against other beads? What determines where (on the bead) the positive terminal and negative terminal of the charge end up?

Research papers on TEGS (triboelectric generator systems) online show the generator material consisting of 2 layers, so it’s straightforward to harvest the + and – charges from the separate layers.

Anyone know how this is accomplished with loose beads in a well?

Furthermore, if the upper and lower layers are made of PCB material instead of conductive filament, the power only needs to traverse through the thickness of the conductive filament in the device. It then moves across the copper PCB material to the edge, experiencing significantly fewer resistive losses.

Interestingly, if the triboelectric effect is a result of beads colliding the top/bottom surfaces, and not the walls, the cell walls might not need to be conductive at all. A feasible solution could be to 3D-print a grid, introduce beads, and then affix a PCB layer on the top and bottom.

This approach appears to lack thorough consideration, unless there’s something I’ve overlooked. What component of the triboelectric effect have I misunderstood?

The concept lies in the synchronization of the beads, which leads to a steady AC waveform as they shift a similar quantity of charge back and forth. They charge a capacitor through power rectification and low pass filtering in our example. A gas discharge tube is used to enhance the instantaneous current, making the blinking effect more noticeable.

However, this was not the point I was making.

Certainly, AC at the output will be rectified and utilized to charge an item.

Let’s say the bead at A5 moves positive charge upwards while the bead at A6 moves the positive charge downwards.

In this scenario, isn’t it possible that the beads are neutralizing each other’s actions?

Alternatively, consider the case of a system with two beads (L and R) and a single bounce. If bead L is moving positive charge upwards and R is moving positive charge downwards, wouldn’t these actions nullify each other?

What factors determine the direction of charge movement on a triboelectric bead when it’s under strain, given that the bead is composed of a homogeneous material?

If the charge direction depends on the molecular composition of the substance, like in quartz crystals, then the spheres would be arranged randomly and would move charges in haphazard directions.

PTFE isn’t a crystal, so what determines the direction of charge when it’s stressed?

When you pause the print to put in the beads, you have to play a game of Go with an AI to determine the polarity. If it ends up in a perfect Fibonacci spiral, you win perpetual motion bingo and Morgan Freeman gives you a prize.

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