Brain Food: Harvesting Energy

Jun 19, 2014

When a bird flaps its wings or a seal dives into the ocean, it’s generating energy. Michael Shafer, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering at Northern Arizona University, says it’s possible to harvest the energy that an animal produces and use it to power transmitters that collect information for biologists.

As part of an NAU research project, a bird wears a transmitter powered by its own movement.
Credit Courtesy photo

“It’s called energy transduction. So I’m going to take one type of energy and I’m going to turn it into another type of energy. So I’m going to take, let’s say, the energy in the fluid moving around the animal and I’m going to turn that into electrical energy, just like a wind turbine does, OK. But we’re doing it on a much much, much, much smaller scale,” he says.

Michael Shafer, assistant professor in mechanical engineering at NAU.
Credit Courtesy photo

Currently, biologists use battery-powered tags and collars on animals to track their movement and learn about their behavior. But the problem, Shafer says, is that the battery power runs out. He’s developing a tag, like a small backpack for birds, that can be re-charged by the animal’s movement.

“Maybe we have the same size tag but instead of having a battery that’s going to run out in a year, we have a system that might last five or eight or something, and we can really allow the biologist to do some really long-term studies on where the animals are going, what are they doing,” Shafer says.

And it’s not just animal science that can benefit. Shafer says, as a result of this new technology, information can be gathered about the tagged animal’s environment as well.

“Maybe we want to know about ocean acidification in the Pacific at different depths. You could go and maybe attach a tag to a number of different species that are out in that area. How are sea surface temperatures changing?” he says.

This has implications for other areas of study, including climate change.