2 weeks in: Reflection time

My research project aims to find a material that can feasibly power wearable technology (for medical applications) using body heat. This has lead me down a path of exploring thermoelectric materials and nanoscience.

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Beginning has, so far, proved to be the hardest part. As my project is entirely online, I was fear-stricken by the infinite depths of the internet and felt like I hadn't a clue how to navigate it like a researcher. From being at the mercy of lecturers signposting exactly where I should be going, I suddenly felt like a drop in the middle of the ocean. The only way I could overcome the intimidation of it all was to stop expecting that I would follow a straight line, and start my squiggly one instead.

Knowing that I wanted to power devices used in medicine, I started by learning about these devices; asking questions like "where are they on the body?", "how much power do they need?" and broadly, "how do they work?". I'll admit that I fell down a little rabbit hole here, and after letting my supervisor know about all the fascinating things I'd learnt, I was promptly reminded that I do have a general destination to aim for and need to obtain the absolutely necessary parameters to undergo my research into materials.

After digging around to find what  batteries are used to power insulin pumps and cochlear implants, I came to the conclusion that 3V would be my target. This set me in good stead. Now all I had to do was find materials that could produce this (what I thought small) voltage...

Endeavouring to immerse myself in the scientific literature of thermoelectric (TE) materials, I soon learnt that my surface level understanding of nanoscience would only get me to the 2nd sentence of the abstract. This was the point where I took myself out of cutting-edge papers, and re-centred myself in learning the scientific theory, maths and terminology behind thermoelectric generators. As challenging as this was, it was undoubtedly a very necessary and enjoyable part of my research journey.


After brushing up my wavering knowledge of TE materials, it now felt appropriate to begin reading scientific papers about them. As I made notes and kept tabs on everything I focused on, I realised soon enough how far and wide this area of research goes. This was both a blessing and a burden.

I would catch myself getting swept away in fascinating papers that spoke about materials with fantastic qualities,  when I brushed over the fact that they operated at 900K (which I've heard, isn't skin temperature). After spending too much time in dead-ends, I had to admit that following an unmethodical inkling of interest wasn't serving my research. 

So by selectively choosing relevant papers that informed me of the common problems of TE materials and body temperature gradients, I made good progress in understanding the pitfalls and possible ways around them. But the more I read, it was becoming increasingly clear and there is no magic bullet material (right now) and there is always a sacrifice to be made in some form (economical, environmental ect...). Nevertheless, lots of hope remains due to the incredible leaps and bounds being made in nanoscience. Up and coming research into manipulating the nanostructure of materials during fabrication has made significant progress.

Having obtained lots of information on potentially useful materials, I'm now looking forward to using simulations where I can play around with, essentially, designing a TE generator for wearable technology.

Emma Merryweather

Student, University of York

I'm an undergraduate Natural Scientist at the University of York, specialising in nanoscience. My research project was aimed at finding a thermoelectric material that could power biomedical devices with a patient's very own body heat. 


Go to the profile of Aya Hammad
4 months ago

This blog was incredibly insightful Emma! I found it so easy to lose myself researching down rabbit holes as well, I guess knowing when to stop is also part of the process.