Harvesting Electricity from Air: Breakthrough Discovery

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Researchers Unveil Game-Changing Method to Generate Electricity from Atmospheric Humidity

As the heat and humidity rise during summertime in the Northern Hemisphere, many people seek relief by turning on electric fans or air conditioners. However, envision a scenario where the electricity needed to power these devices could be extracted from the surrounding humid air itself.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst claim to have demonstrated the possibility of converting almost any material into a device capable of harnessing electricity from atmospheric humidity. This breakthrough technique involves incorporating nanopores, which are less than 100 nanometers in diameter, into the material. Their findings were published in the journal Advanced Materials.

According to the researchers, the air around us contains a significant amount of electrical energy. For instance, every water droplet within a cloud carries an electric charge, and under certain conditions, a cloud can generate a lightning bolt. By creating a small-scale artificial cloud that reliably and continuously produces electricity, they have devised a means to harness this energy.

This laboratory-generated cloud relies on the “generic Air-gen effect” and builds upon previous research conducted in 2020. That earlier study demonstrated the continuous harvesting of electricity from the air using a specialized material composed of protein nanowires derived from the bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens.

Following their discovery with Geobacter, the researchers came to realize that the ability to generate electricity from the air is not limited to specific materials but is instead a general phenomenon. The crucial requirement is that the material possesses nanopores smaller than 100 nanometers, driven by a characteristic known as the “mean free path.” This parameter represents the distance a single molecule, such as airborne water, can travel before colliding with another molecule of the same substance. In the case of water molecules suspended in the air, their mean free path measures approximately 100 nm.

The researchers devised a harvester constructed from a thin layer of material containing nanopores smaller than 100 nm. These nanopores facilitate the passage of water molecules from the upper to the lower part of the material. However, due to the minuscule size of each pore, water molecules easily collide with the edges as they traverse the thin layer. Consequently, the upper portion of the layer encounters a greater influx of water molecules carrying an electric charge compared to the lower part. This leads to a charge imbalance, similar to what occurs within a cloud, as the upper part accumulates a higher charge relative to the lower part. Essentially, this creates a battery-like effect, enabling continuous operation as long as there is humidity in the air.

The researchers emphasized that since humidity is constantly present, the harvester could operate around the clock, resolving the intermittency challenge faced by technologies like solar or wind power.

Financial support for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation, Sony Group, Link Foundation, and the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst.

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