Tech Insights

Can a Tiny Electrostatic Generator Boost Renewable Energy?

January 31, 2024 by John Nieman

An electrostatic generator the size of a centimeter can be woven into large fabrics to harness renewable energy. These hexagonal distributed embedded energy converters have the potential to capture energy in the ocean, on roadway surfaces, and within building walls.

Many innovative clean energy projects are grand in scope. Wind turbines have been growing to astounding sizes on par with high-rise buildings. One of the world’s largest solar panel farms, located in India, sprawls across 14,000 acres. Enormous dams capture hydropower. But, can a tiny, flexible structure enhance all renewable energy forms?


An artistic rendering of how hexDEECs can be woven into large, flexible fabrics.

An artistic rendering of how hexDEECs can be woven into large, flexible fabrics. Image used courtesy of NREL


A newly patented electrostatic generator focuses on seemingly minute yet ubiquitous energy sources occurring naturally throughout the day. Hexagonal distributed embedded energy converters (hexDEECs) are tiny, ultra-flexible structures made from material like silicon rubber. They can produce energy as the rubber is compressed and released repeatedly. While still in the research and development phase, these small generators have the potential to harness energy from highways, ocean waves, and the nearly imperceptible yet constant movement of building walls.  


HexDEECs Energy and Existing Infrastructure

The hexDEEC is a micromachine that capitalizes on minor environmental movements to turn mechanical energy into electricity. No bigger than a centimeter, each hexDEEC has a simple and resilient structure produced from affordable materials. The devices are then integrated into existing infrastructure. 


Diagram of an individual hexDEEC.  

Diagram of an individual hexDEEC. Image used courtesy of NREL


As water, wind, cars, or other things exert pressure on the embedded devices, the hexDEEC compresses and generates renewable electricity. Each hexDEEC can only produce one-millionth of a joule of energy from each compression and release, but since they can be woven together in vast sheets, they can produce substantial amounts of electricity. 

The engineers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have an expansive vision for metamaterials. These large, woven, flexible fabrics might see applications in oceans, on roads, or within clothing. They might even be integrated into structural materials like walls and support ropes.

The NREL team is studying other electrostatic variable capacitance generators already in use and producing results. Although hexDEECs are still theoretical today, the success of similar technology shows tangible feasibility for the hexDEEC tech. 

The renewable energy sector has made impressive strides in recent years, pushing the envelope in scope and size as renewable energy projects expand their contribution to net zero carbon goals. But the future depends on the small scale as well as the large, and hexDEECs have the potential to maximize the minute amounts of energy coursing around us every day.   


HexDEEC Scalability for Large Renewable Energy Projects 

The grandeur of large-scale renewable energy projects can also prevent them from ever coming to fruition. The wind sector is a prime example of how challenges compound—scalability, feasibility, and economics can all hinder renewable energy development. 

Losses are currently substantial. In 2022, GE Renewable Energy reported losses amounting to $2.24 billion, with a staggering 20% of the onshore wind workforce being laid off. Supply chain problems, material costs, and labor expenses are collectively forming a wrecking ball to profit margins, leading industry leaders to pull back and exercise caution. 

Because of the simple reality that bigger is often better when it comes to renewable energy projects like wind farms, the upfront financing is steep, and the visibility of such large projects can even become a political stumbling block. Danish wind giant Ørsted recently took a $4 billion loss after multiple offshore wind projects off the coast of New Jersey were halted. There was also substantial local opposition to the projects because of concerns about the impact on the tourism economy. 

Whether wind power, solar power, or any other clean energy sector, the energy transition requires financial risk and astronomical spending to build the infrastructure needed to support green energy projects. The hexDEEC research shows the potential to alleviate costs and maximize energy potential.