Ontario researchers have developed a motion-powered, fireproof sensor they say can be used to track the movements of firefighters and others who work in high-risk situations.
The sensors, developed by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton with partners at other universities, use friction to harness static electricity in much the same way that socks rubbing on the floor can lead to an electric shock, both powering the sensor and letting others know whether the person wearing it is moving.
“In a house that is burning, there’s no visual line of sight,” said Ravi Selvaganapathy, a mechanical engineering professor who oversaw the project.
But using these sensors, people can identify whether a person is walking, running, jumping or still, he said. If a person stops moving at a time when they shouldn’t – like if they’re in danger – those monitoring their movements could then jump into action.
Further, Selvaganapathy said, the signal generated by the device can be triangulated to figure out the wearer’s position.
The fact that it’s self-powering is important, Selvaganapathy noted, because batteries break down in high heat, rendering them useless to firefighters and some factory workers.
Selvaganapathy and the other researchers successfully tested their sensor at temperatures up to 300 Celsius, and it continued to function.
The working model, described in a paper published in the journal Nano Energy, is currently about the size of a button-cell watch battery, but can be manufactured in a number of different shapes and sizes and then attached to uniforms or personal protective equipment, Selvaganapathy said.
The technology that powers the tracker, called triboelectricity, is already being used for other applications.
“This is the oldest form of electricity,” Selvaganapathy said, noting that it has increasingly been harnessed over the past six or seven years and only generates a small amount of power.
“So recently circuits have been developed that consume very low powers, and therefore this is very useful in a wearable type application where you incorporate these power generators into clothing, into other things, where something is being sensed in the body,” he said. “It could be ECG, it could be other types of signals.”
Selvaganapathy and his team are currently looking for a commercial partner to bring the sensor to market, he said, noting that their ideal match is a company that already makes personal protective equipment or gear for firefighters.
“It’s exciting to develop something that could save someone’s life in the future,” Islam Hassan, another researcher on the project, said in a statement. “If firefighters use our technology and we can save someone’s life, that would be great.”