Operating a ‘smart home’ by breath control

smart home graphic

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have invented a device that allows users to control “smart technology” by changing their breathing patterns.

The self-powered unit fits into the nostrils and could enhance the quality of life for people with limited mobility or inability to speak clearly. Users may program the device to send automatic alerts to medical personnel if an individual has trouble breathing.

“We believe that having both of these capabilities—smart technology control and medical alert—in a small device makes this special,” said Changyong “Chase” Cao, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who is leading the research and development of the device.

Cao and his collaborators recently published their research in the journal Advanced Materials Interfaces. The team included recent postdoc Yaokun Pang (now a professor at Qingdao University, China) and PhD student Shoue Chen. Cao said he has also applied for a patent on their prototype device, Cao said.

The ‘smart technology’ revolution 

Together, smart-appliance and smart-home technology make up a rapidly growing industry. Hundreds of consumer-ready appliances and devices are Bluetooth-enabled or folded into the “Internet of Things” (IoT).

Smart-home appliances include lighting and energy control systems, air conditioners, and security systems. Users can control the devices remotely or program them to perform autonomously.

But for those who can’t speak or use their limbs, smart technology’s benefits are nearly impossible to access.

“Smart technology is great—but only if you can actually use it,” Cao said. “Our new design would allow for anyone who is breathing to be able to turn devices on and off. They could change the settings of a thermostat, for example.”

How the device works

Cao and his collaborators used a technology known as triboelectric nanogenerators (TENGs), or triboelectrification, to make the device work. 

TENGs can convert mechanical energy harvested from the environment to electricity. That electricity can then power small devices such as sensors or recharge consumer electronics.

The technology, developed in earnest over the last decade, allows scientists to convert daily mechanical energy into useful electric power. That energy present in the natural environment includes rain, wind or even everyday body motions. Those motions include touching hands together, walking or, in this case, breathing.

Cao said the device—dubbed a “breathing-driven Human-Machine Interface (HMI) system”—could be available to the public within three to five years.

For more information, contact Mike Scott at mike.scott@case.edu.

This article was originally published July 12, 2022, in The Daily.