Scientists have invented a device that can continuously generate electricity from thin air, offering a glimpse of a possible sustainable energy source that can be made of almost any material and runs on the ambient humidity that surrounds all of us, reports a new study.
The novel “air-generator,” or Airgen, is constructed from materials that have holes smaller than 100nanometers, which are a thousand times smaller in size than the human hair. The researchers say that this design is able to pull power from airborne water drops for a much longer period than other concepts ,, indicating it may eventually be a sustainable and continuous source of energy. The researchers hope that the technology will eventually be used to combat climate change as a viable alternative to fossil-fuels.
If lightning has ever streaked across the sky you have already seen the power hidden within ambient air. This energy is fueled by the electrical charges of water droplets in the air, a phenomenon that has inspired many attempts to harvest humidity by inducing imbalances in charged waters with special devices. These techniques are often only effective for a short time or use expensive materials. This makes them difficult to scale up and is also inefficient.
Now, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, have developed an Air-gen device that yields electricity from contact with water droplets that pass through its porous material. According to a Wednesday study, Air-gen creates “a sustained and spontaneous charging gradient” for continuous electrical output. This “opens up a broad door for the exploration of sustainable electric from ambient air,” a report said.
“One day we may get clean electricity literally anywhere, anytime by using Air-gen technology (i.e., the concept of ‘ubiquitous powering’), because air humidity is 24/7 continuous and everywhere,” Jun Yao, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMass Amherst and senior author of the study, said in an email to Motherboard.
“It is the fact that air has a large amount of electrical energy which makes it a good source for power. “So if we make Air-gen bigger, we can get larger-volume power–that volume can certainly extend to usage for daily-life functions.”
Yao and his colleagues initially stumbled upon the potential of the Air-gen effect a few years ago during an experiment with biologically synthesized nanowires. After successfully producing electricity from the tiny wires, the team began to explore the possibility of repeating the same technique with a host of other materials.
“The initial discovery was made back in 2020 and was really a serendipitous one–we found that Air-gen made from a specific material called protein nanowires synthesized by a type of bacterium called Geobacter can continuously produce electricity from air humidity,” Yao said.
“But that time, we considered the effect exclusive to this specific material (although we had some initial intuition/indication that the effect may expand to other materials as well),” he continued. The current research is built on the initial intuition that led to discovering this generic Air-gen phenomenon. So it turns an initially narrow window to a wide-open door for broad potential/impact.”
Indeed, the results revealed that practically any material could become an Air-gen device provided it was perforated with tiny holes measuring 100 nanometers or fewer. At this scale, the holes are big enough to allow water to pass through an upper chamber into a lower chamber, but are small enough that the droplets make contact with the material as they move down through the holes. The device is then thrown into an imbalance of charge because water drops soak the upper chamber as they enter the lower one.
The microscale device was able to produce continuous energy equivalent to several hundred millivolts for a test period of a week, which is much longer than other air generator concepts that had a one-time power output that lasted no more than 48 hours. Its material versatility opens up the possibility of scaling the idea up to meet commercial or industrial energy demands.
“As a general belief, the Air-gen is not able to match other energy sources, such as solar and wind, for power output. “However, the beauty is that air is diffusive and filled in the entire vertical space, which means that we can stack many layers of air-gen devices in the vertical space to improve power (without taking up additional space footprint).”
“So in principle, Air-gen can be more space efficient” than other power sources, he continued. “Moreover, they can be engineered into varied form factors and neatly blend into the environment (even without one’s notice)” versus the example of “a solar panel that exclusively takes up space.”
It’s wild to imagine a future where homes, factories, and perhaps whole cities might be powered by the electricity that is concealed in the air. Air-gen is still in the development phase. However, Yao and colleagues have already begun to optimize their materials and scale the concept up to increase energy efficiency.
“Importantly, since air humidity is ubiquitous and continuous 24/7, Air-gen can be deployed almost anywhere for continuous energy harvesting, transcending the inherent intermittence of existing harvesters restricted to time or location,” the researchers said in the study.
“The sustainable Air-gen technology holds promising prospects” that make it “a possible ‘greener’ energy technology for the future,” they concluded.
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