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Good vibrations: Engineering professor earns NSF CAREER Award for new way to harvest energy

May 30, 2023 - by Kim Delker

From smart buildings to the Internet of Things to cyberphysical systems, the technological marvels of our modern world have made things like controlling your kitchen appliances remotely or cars that park themselves a reality. Such advances have changed the way we all live and interact, but that technology has come with a cost: that of increasing power needs.

Wireless sensor networks require constant energy, and although batteries provide that energy, they have a limited lifespan. But one University of New Mexico (UNM) researcher is working on a new and improved way to harvest energy: using vibrations to harness power.

photo: Nathan Jackson
Nathan Jackson

Nathan Jackson, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, was awarded the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award for “A Universal Microsystem-based Vibration Energy Harvester.” The $500,0000 project begins June 1 and ends May 31, 2028.

The project involves the process of piezoelectric microsystem energy harvesting — converting mechanical stress (vibration) into electric energy and funneling that energy to power microscale devices and systems that would be able to function 24/7 and could be applied to most applications. This technology could allow devices and systems to be self-sustaining without the need to replace batteries, which are particularly useful in remote or hard-to-reach locations.

Although he said the technology of harvesting energy through piezoelectric microsystem energy has been around for over a decade, challenges in manufacturing and applying the devices in regard to power, frequency bandwidth and reliability have limited their potential use, and currently there are no commercial microsystem energy harvesting devices. Jackson said the goal of this project study is to create a more universal low-frequency microsystem vibration energy harvesting system that could power wireless sensor networks.

Jackson’s project will focus on investigating solutions to three main challenges which have limited the use of microsystem energy harvesters: widening the frequency bandwidth, frequency tunability to provide consistent optimal power supply, and enhancing the power density through development of novel ternary piezoelectric thin-film material structures.

The project also includes an educational outreach component that aims to increase interest in microsystems. For this, Jackson will be working with V. Sue Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho to develop take-home microsystem education kits that students can use to learn about microsystems technology. Jackson will also work to increase microsystem interest to undergraduates at UNM through undergraduate research opportunities, enhanced microsystems curriculum, and development of a microsystem student group.

Jackson is the director of the UNM Nanoscience and Microsystems Engineering program, which is an interdisciplinary graduate program based in the School of Engineering. The program currently has around 50 students.

The CAREER Award is NSF’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of scholar-teacher, through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of research and education.

Jackson said that receiving the NSF CAREER Award is a major boost to his research.

“It’s a very prestigious award,” he said. “I’ve been working in the energy harvesting area for over 10 years, so it means a lot to be recognized by my peers.”

This project is jointly funded by the Division of Electrical, Communications and Cyber Systems and the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).