Scientists have built the world’s thinnest electric generator – and it’s only one atom wide

Researchers have created a graphene-like material that generates electricity every time its stretched, and could power the wearable technology of the future.

Scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Columbia Engineering in the US have shown they can generate electricity from a layer of material that’s just one atom thick. The generator is made from molybdenum disulphide (MoS2), which is a clear, flexible and extremely light material that opens up huge possibilities for the future of electricity generation.

The new electrical generator is an example of piezoelectricity, or electricity that’s generated from pressure. Piezoelectric materials have huge potential to be used to create materials that can charge devices, such as footwear that powers an iPod. But until now, scientists have struggled to make these materials thin and flexible enough to be practical.

However, it’s been predicted that a substance capable of forming single-atom-thick molecules, or two-dimensional layers, would be highly piezoelectric.

Now the scientists have proved that this is the case for the first time ever. Their results have beenpublished in Nature.

To test whether MoS2 would be piezoelectric on the atomic scale, the team flaked off extremely thin layers of MoS2 onto a flexible substrate with electrical contact.

Because of the way these flakes were created, each had a slightly different number of layers – for example, while some were just one-atom-thick, others were eight-atoms-thick.

The scientists tested the piezoelectric response of these flakes by stretching the material, and measuring the flow of electrons into an external circuit.

Interestingly, they discovered that when the material had an odd number of layers, it generated electricity when stretched. But when it had an even number of layers, there was no current generated.

A single one-atom-thick layer of the material was able to generate 15 megavolts of electricity when stretched.

They also found that as the number of layers increased, the amount of current generated decreased, until eventually the material got too thick and stopped producing any electricity at all.

Computational studies suggest that this is because the atomic layers all have random orientations, and they eventually cancel each other out.

The research team also arranged these one-atom-thick layers of MoS2 into arrays, and found that together they were capable of generating a large amount of electricity.

This suggests that they’re a promising candidate for powering nano electronics, and could be used to create wearable technologies.

“This material – just a single layer of atoms – could be made as a wearable device, perhaps integrated into clothing, to convert energy from your body movement to electricity and power wearable sensors or medical devices, or perhaps supply enough energy to charge your cell phone in your pocket,” said James Hone, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia engineering and co-leader of the research,

Microsoft designs stress-busting bra.

Microsoft working on a smart bra to measure mood

A sketch from the research paper
Two sensors were embedded in the bra

Microsoft researchers have designed a smart bra that can detect stress.

The prototype contains removable sensors that monitor heart and skin activity to provide an indication of mood levels.

The aim was to find out if wearable technology could help prevent stress-related over-eating.

Mood data was provided to the wearer via a smartphone app in order to highlight when “emotional eating” was likely to occur.

A team from Microsoft’s visualisation and interaction research group embedded an electrocardiogram and electro-dermal activities sensors as well as a gyroscope and accelerometer in the bra.

In their paper, the researchers say using a bra “was ideal because it allowed us to collect EKG [electrocardiogram] near the heart”.

Efforts to create a similar piece of underwear for men worked less well, largely because the sensors were located too far away from the heart.

The women testing the technology reported their emotions for about six hours a day over a period of four days.

“It was very tedious for participants to wear our prototyped sensing system, as the boards had to be recharged every three to four hours,” Microsoft senior research designer Asta Roseway said.

Electric shock

Wearable technology is increasingly being used to monitor a range of health conditions.

Last month saw the release of a Twitter-connected bra, that tweeted every time it was unhooked to encourage women to self-examine their breasts.

And last year a patent was awarded to a US firm that was working on a wearable device that analysed breast heat in order to detect cancer.

Meanwhile in response to a series of rapes in India, three engineering students developed a bra loaded with sensors and an electronic circuit that is activated when someone attempts to grope a woman wearing it.

Can wearable technology boost productivity?


With great power comes great responsibility. There is some confusion over whether this quote should be attributed to Voltaire or Spiderman.

Either way, the message is the same and one that should be resonating with the inventors, companies, brands, media, policy makers and industries hitching a ride on the innovation bullet train of wearable technologies.


Our original Human Cloud research project at Goldsmiths, University of London in partnership with cloud computing provider Rackspace focused on the socio-economic impact of wearable technology moving from novelty and entertainment to health and lifestyle.

We conducted a survey of 4,000 adults in the UK and US and spent six weeks with 26 participants experimenting with these new technologies, from fitness bands like the Fitbit, Jawbone Up and Nike Fuelband, to sensor-based wearable cameras like the Autographer.


With echoes of Stephen Hawking‘s voice on Radiohead‘s “OK Computer” album, participants experimenting with wearable technologies felt fitter (68%), happier (75%), and more productive (84%).

The nuances of the human experience was reflected in the six archetypes of wearable technology users we identified from deep qualitative research from the curious, controllers, and quantified selfers to the self-medics, finish line fanatics, and ubiquitors.

“As you can see, today has not gone well so far,” says one self-medic participant mournfully, looking at two graphs: one shows he only took 394 steps that day, the other that he only got five hours 28 minutes sleep. When asked why he wears technology, his answer is to “prevent delusion” and so that function is at least achieved.

Privacy remains a key issue, but it is a multifaceted and complex discussion.

Twenty percent of survey respondents wanted to see Google Glass banned entirely from public spaces, but the same percentage were willing to share the data from wearable devices with government to improve services.


The argument from our ‘controller’ archetype is that their data is already valuable, the question is who is benefiting and exploiting this value.

Fernando Pessoa wrote that it is the fate of everyone in this life to be exploited so is it worse to be exploited by Senhor Vasques [his employer] and his textile company than by vanity, glory, resentment, envy, or the impossible?

This is a question all of us must answer, particularly as the fine line between the possible and the seemingly impossible is breached nearly every day by one form of emerging technology or another fueled by the exponential growth of computing power, storage, bandwidth, nanotechnology, and big data.

One of the most intriguing findings of the initial phase of the research was the way early adopter companies were starting to explore the power of wearable tech in the workplace.

Several companies reported issuing laptops, mobile phones, and fitness bands to all employees as part of standard corporate kit. This stimulated our imagination and led to the next phase of our research now underway with Rackspace.


We are looking at a big data mash-up where the wearable tech human cloud meets the productivity and performance corporate cloud to amplify the role of the human cloud at work.


For businesses experimenting with these technologies there are implications for occupational psychology, systems development, insight and analytics, leadership, competitive advantage, environmental analysis and workplace design.

Three billion gigabytes of big data are generated every day, but only one-half of one percent of this data gets analyzed and put to work.

Wearable tech data from employees and customers are an inevitable key ingredient in the recipes for making sense of big data and the role of emerging technologies in shaping our cities, societies, markets and economies.

This big data stew can be augmented with cognitive and decision-support systems like IBM Watson, the computing service that famously triumphed on Jeopardy in 2011, now deployed in the cloud diagnosing and helping treat cancer patients.

With real-time access to human data in the workplace systems like Watson can potentially support specific decisions and scenarios in relation to your personal Human Cloud. We recognize it is not all about opportunities.


There are obvious surveillance implications and risks inherent in these kinds of dynamic data driven integrations of networks of people and systems.

Analysts at Credit Suisse suggest the wearable tech market will grow from $1.4bn (£878m) in annual sales this year to $50bn (£31.3bn) by 2018.

Your friendly neighborhood Spiderman also said some spiders change colors to blend into their environment. It’s a defense mechanism.

Wearable technologies are in the midst of this blending and soon will diffuse subtly but powerfully into the fabric of everyday lives so as to be unrecognizable as a distinct innovation domain.

At this stage it is the great responsibility of every one of us to consider those implications.