Human walking requires sophisticated coordination of muscles, tendons, and ligaments working together to provide a constantly changing combination of force, stiffness and damping. In particular, the human knee joint acts as a variable damper, dissipating greater amounts of energy when the knee undergoes large rotational displacements during walking, running or hopping. Typically, this damping results from the dissipation, or loss, of metabolic energy. It has been proven to be possible however; to collect this otherwise wasted energy through the use of electromechanical transducers of several different types which convert mechanical energy to electrical energy. When properly controlled, this type of device not only provides desirable structural damping effects, but the energy generated can be stored for use in a wide range of applications. A novel approach to an energy harvesting knee joint damper is presented using a dielectric elastomer (DE) smart material based electromechanical transducer. Dielectric elastomers are extremely elastic materials with high electrical permittivity which operate based on electrostatic effects. By placing compliant electrodes on either side of a dielectric elastomer film, a specialized capacitor is created, which couples mechanical and electrical energy using induced electrostatic stresses. Dielectric elastomer energy harvesting devices not only have a high energy density, but the material properties are similar to that of human tissue, making it highly suitable for wearable applications. A theoretical framework for dielectric elastomer energy harvesting is presented along with a mapping of the active phases of the energy harvesting to the appropriate phases of the walking stride. Experimental results demonstrating the energy harvesting capability of a DE generator undergoing strains similar to those experienced during walking are provided for the purpose of verifying the theoretical results. The work presented here can be applied to devices for use in rehabilitation of patients with muscular dysfunction and transfemoral prosthesis as well as energy generation for able-bodied wearers.

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