While it doesn't look like much and flops around like one of those red little fortune-telling fish for seemingly no reason, a new material created by researchers at MIT performs a pretty handy trick: it turns small amounts of water vapor into energy.
Developed at MIT's David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, the energy-harvesting material is a blend of two interlocking polymers. According to a release by MIT news writer Anne Trafton, one polymer "forms a hard but flexible matrix that provides structural support" while the other "is a soft gel that swells when it absorbs water." Put the two together and you get what you see in the video below: thin strips of film that curl over themselves and generally spasm around.
Exerting more control over this movement, researchers were able to demonstrate some of the promise of the hybrid material. For instance, they found it was strong enough to lift a load 10 times its own weight, which could mean quite a bit of strength on a very small scale. What's more, the mechanical energy generated by the motion of the spasming film can be converted into electricity by introducing piezoelectric elements, though the system only produces an average of 5.6 nanowatts.
That won't be enough to power your home, but it could provide power for all kinds of innovative uses on a micro- or nanoscopic scale:
On a smaller scale, the film could power microelectricalmechanical systems (MEMS), including environmental sensors, or even smaller devices, such as nanoelectronics. The researchers are now working to improve the efficiency of the conversion of mechanical energy to electrical energy, which could allow smaller films to power larger devices.