A group of engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has made a remarkable discovery that could revolutionize clean energy generation. Their research, published in the journal Advanced Materials, reveals that virtually any material can be transformed into a device capable of continuously harvesting electricity from the surrounding humidity in the air. The key lies in incorporating nanopores, which are tiny holes measuring less than 100 nanometers in diameter, into the material.
Xiaomeng Liu, the lead author of the paper and a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering at UMass Amherst, expresses great enthusiasm about the findings, stating, “This is very exciting. We are opening up a wide door for harvesting clean electricity from thin air.”
Jun Yao, the senior author of the paper and an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMass Amherst, explains the concept behind their innovation. He highlights the vast amount of electricity present in the air, drawing an analogy to clouds that carry electrical charges and can produce lightning bolts. However, effectively capturing electricity from lightning remains a challenge. The researchers have effectively created a man-made cloud on a small scale, generating electricity predictably and continuously, enabling its reliable harvest.
The heart of this artificial cloud is based on what Yao and his colleagues call the “generic Air-gen effect.” Their work builds upon a previous study conducted in 2020 by Yao and co-author Derek Lovley, a Distinguished Professor of Microbiology at UMass Amherst. In that study, they demonstrated the continuous generation of electricity from the air using a specialized material made of protein nanowires derived from the bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens.
The researchers discovered that the ability to generate electricity from the air, which they termed the “Air-gen effect,” is not limited to specific materials. It is a universal phenomenon that can be achieved with any material possessing a specific characteristic: having nanopores smaller than 100 nanometers. The significance of this size requirement is based on the mean free path, which represents the average distance a molecule travels in a substance before colliding with another molecule of the same substance. In the case of suspended water molecules in the air, their mean free path is approximately 100 nm.
Realizing the implications of this size parameter, Yao and his team designed an electricity harvester based on it. The harvester consists of a thin layer of material filled with nanopores smaller than 100 nm, allowing water molecules from the upper to the lower part of the material. Due to the minuscule size of the pores, the water molecules constantly collide with the edges of the pores while passing through the layer. Consequently, the upper part of the material accumulates more charge-carrying water molecules compared to the lower part, resulting in a charge imbalance similar to that observed in a cloud. This charge imbalance effectively creates a battery that operates as long as there is humidity in the air.
Yao emphasizes the simplicity and novelty of this idea, which opens up countless possibilities. The electricity harvester can be constructed from various materials, providing flexibility in terms of cost-effectiveness and adaptability to different environments. For instance, different types of harvesters can be designed for rainforest or arid regions.
Since humidity is ubiquitous, the harvester can function continuously, regardless of the time of day, weather conditions, or wind availability. This overcomes one of the limitations of technologies like wind or solar power, which are reliant on specific conditions.
Furthermore, owing to the three-dimensional diffusion of air humidity and the thinness of the Air-gen device (only a fraction of a human hair’s width), thousands of these devices can be stacked on top of each other, efficiently increasing energy output without a significant increase in size. This means that an Air-gen device could provide kilowatt-level power for general electrical utility usage, offering the potential for a future world where clean electricity is readily available everywhere.
Yao envisions a future where clean electricity is accessible in any location, thanks to the generic Air-gen effect. This groundbreaking discovery has the potential to transform our energy landscape and usher in a new era of sustainable power generation.
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