It may seem like something straight out of science fiction — akin to the famed Dune suits that rely on body moisture — but breath-powered gas masks are a reality today. Researchers at Korea’s Chung-Ang University have created just such a device that can power sensors, Bluetooth trackers, and LEDs by harvesting the energy of human breath. Is their creation a fitness wearable or a serious piece of emergency protection gear? You decide; the gas mask can both monitor breathing patterns and detect chemical warfare agents.
So how does this battery-free device get its power? It’s all about vibrations: namely airflow vibrations that drive triboelectric nanogenerators (TENGs). These devices convert mechanical energy — in this case, the force of breath — into electrical energy. Researcher Dr. Sangmin Lee explains; “Respiration acts as a continuous mechanical input and can be used to operate TENGs. Film-flutter TENGs are such respiration-driven devices that can generate a continuous electrical output from an extremely small respiration input by exploiting the flutter phenomenon arising from airflow-induced vibrations.”
While fans of health-tracking wearables may look to the device’s ability to monitor the wearer’s breathing patterns and changes, its creators have a much more grave use in mind: detecting dangerous chemical agents. The research team outfitted the gas mask with sensors that can detect highly toxic cyanogen chloride, which was first used in chemical warfare rockets in the 1940s, as well as the nerve agent sarin, cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as “one of the most toxic of the known chemical warfare agents.”
Though the research team also designed the device for non-warfare applications, as the mask can detect dimethyl methylphosphonate, which is mostly used as a flame retardant, commonly found along with other agents in substances used to suppress forest fires. Dr. Lee says, “Since gas masks are extensively used in emergencies like fire and chemical gas exposure, we focused on applying TENG to a gas mask. We believe that IVF-TENG can be used as a self-powered sensor in such scenarios.”