Self-powered system is a system that can sustainably operate without an external power supply for sensing, detection, data processing and data transmission. Nanogenerators were first developed for self-powered systems based on piezoelectric effect and triboelectrification effect for converting tiny mechanical energy into electricity, which have applications in internet of things, environmental/infrastructural monitoring, medical science and security. In this paper, we present the fundamental theory of the nanogenerators starting from the Maxwell equations. In the Maxwell's displacement current, the first term e0?E?t gives the birth of electromagnetic wave, which is the foundation of wireless communication, radar and later the information technology. Our study indicates that the second term ?P?t in the Maxwell's displacement current is directly related to the output electric current of the nanogenerator, meaning that our nanogenerators are the applications of Maxwell's displacement current in energy and sensors. By contrast, electromagnetic generators are built based on Lorentz force driven flow of free electrons in a conductor. This study presents the similarity and differences between pieozoelectric nanogenerator and triboelectric nanogenerator, as well as the classical electromagnetic generator, so that the impact and uniqueness of the nanogenerators can be clearly understood. We also present the three major applications of nanogenerators as micro/nano-power source, self-powered sensors and blue energy.

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DOI: 10.1016/j.mattod.2016.12.001