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Researchers uncover secret superpower in common cleaning product that may harbor the 'power sources of the future'

Researchers hope the science can lead to a new, low-cost, and biodegradable power source.

Researchers hope the science can lead to a new, low-cost, and biodegradable power source.

Photo Credit: iStock

The absorbent (and sometimes entertaining) sponge, a common bathtub and kitchen staple, could someday help to power the lights and devices that we use daily. 

Researchers supported by the Beijing Natural Science Foundation are studying how electricity can be generated when sponges — in this case, loofahs — are squeezed

They have already successfully generated small amounts of power through what the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) calls an "exotic phenomenon of flexoelectricity." 

Experts in an Anthropocene Magazine (AM) report on the breakthrough also cite closely related piezoelectricity. Both techie terms describe the material or process involved when stress (squeezing a sponge in this case) is used to generate electricity, according to ScienceDirect.

If proven scalable, the researchers hope the science can lead to a new, low-cost, and biodegradable power source. 

The experts are using loofahs made from dried gourds, which are treated with a chemical that leaves a cellulose crystal sponge base, AM reported

When the researchers squeezed one of the treated sponges, which was less than a quarter-inch thick, they successfully generated a small amount of electricity. When they connected several sponges to the squeeze line, they powered LED lights for a short period of time. 

A video from the lab, shared by PNAS, shows the experiment in practice. A researcher's hand is shown pressing down on a line of sponges around nine times. The scientist then presses down a lever, and a circle of LED lights turns on, but only for a moment. 

It's a glimmer of the potential for sponge-based power. 

Quartz is a type of crystal that provides piezoelectricity and is a part of watches and microphones. Even wood can provide a small amount of piezoelectricity, AM reported

But, sponges seem to perform better, per the experts. 

"The output of the electricity per unit mass exceeds the commonly used traditional piezoelectric materials," Beihang University in Beijing Professor Li-Hua Shao said in the AM story. 

For now, the sponges could power sensors, lights, and small devices. But the experts told AM that they hope their research will lead to the development of a large-scale, artificial porous material that can be a powerhouse

"We believe that by mimicking and optimizing the natural materials to design materials for higher output we will be able to power other larger portable equipment," Hua said in the AM story, "and effectively harvest other energies from the environment such as waves, vibrations, and winds."

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