Invisible robots and self-powered touchscreens with transparent crystals

Used for decades in medical imaging but also in watchmaking and automotive, piezoelectric materials transform a power supply in motion and vice versa. Today, researchers from American and Chinese universities have found a new and simple way to make powerful transparent piezoelectric materials. This could revolutionize scanners but also create invisible robots or touch screens that power themselves.

Piezoelectric materials are composed of crystalline structures that transform mechanical energy into electricity and vice versa: distort the structure and generate an electric current; apply an electric current and it deforms. These materials are used in many fields, from simple gas lighters to state-of-the-art medical devices. A group of American and Chinese researchers has managed to create a new, revolutionary piezoelectric material.

In a paper published in Nature, the researchers describe their discovery: a transparent material, composed of ferroelectric crystals, and very easy to produce. They chose lead-magnesium niobate titanate (PMN-PT) which is normally opaque. By applying an alternative rather than continuous current, they have not only succeeded in making it much more efficient but also in making it transparent.

Increased sensitivity for some medical devices

The result is a piezoelectric effect 50 times more powerful than that of the transparent piezoelectric materials usually used. It could be used to create transducers for much more sensitive photo-acoustic imaging, which would help in the detection of cancers or blood flow analysis for vascular diseases.

This discovery could also have implications in other areas. The ability to turn a deformation into a current would be useful for creating touch screens self-powered by finger pressure. Conversely, the ability to turn current into motion would create transparent actuators, and thus invisible robots.

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