Disney’s Paper Generators Create Electricity Without Batteries

What are the experiences we could create when batteries are removed from electronics? Disney Research explores the idea with its new electric paper.

We’ve all talked about an Internet of things, but there are huge bottlenecks–like the fact that our battery technology is stagnant, and mining all that lithium is horrible for our environment. So long as battery technology continues to be so disappointing, the design of our future will suffer. But what if we could create energy without the batteries through the simple gestures we already make?


Paper Generators are the latest breakthrough out of Disney Research, by M. Emre Karagozler, Ivan Poupyrev, and Yuri Suzuki. They’re essentially pieces of paper that you touch, rub, or slide to generate enough power to do everything from light LEDs to activate an eBook screen. You’ll see several more examples in the video above.

If there’s something truly incredible at play here, it’s “the simplicity of the designs,” explains researcher Ivan Poupyrev: “This simplicity leads to countless applications enabling interactivity everywhere and anytime. My overall goal is to make the whole world interactive, and creating ubiquitous power supplies is a key step in that direction.”

That said, this simplicity is only created through a superb understanding of physics. The paper is comprised of electrets, materials that hold a semipermanent electric charge. It just so happens that one popular electret is Teflon. Rub Teflon against ordinary paper, and the paper itself builds up an opposite charge of its own. So as you rub or tap the two together, you create energy through this negative/positive interaction, and components (like printed conductive ink) harvest that energy to be used in whatever paper creation you’ve imagined.

As for that energy, it’s much more capable than an alternative like a watch battery, because while it’s low in amps, it’s very high in voltage. Imagine voltage as a blitz of electrons–maybe not endless in its stream but coming through with enough force to get big things done (like inducing mechanical motions or lighting 12 LEDs at the same time). “A small battery source would be depleted almost immediately in most of the applications that we designed for our power generators, and that would make them unfeasible from the product point of view: You get something that works once and then stops,” explains Poupyrev. “With our tech, you do not have to worry about it.”

And that whole “not having to worry about it” factor is a very big one. Paper Generators cost almost nothing to produce; they can be printed with traditional printers. Plus, they won’t screw the environment along the way. “[This] makes it possible to add digital interactivity to objects on truly massive scales, millions of units of packaging, posters, books, magazines, game boards, toys, tickets, maps, anything basically for free,” Poupyrev writes.

Indeed, and we haven’t even touched on the potential that Paper Generators may fit into clothing or wearables, harvesting energy from your natural movements and gestures. If Paper Generators prove anything, it’s that ingenuity can be just as important as scientific breakthrough.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.