Almost any object can harvest energy from thin air, scientists have discovered

Almost any material can be used to convert the energy in air moisture into electricity, scientists have found, in a breakthrough that could lead to continuous production of clean energy with little pollution.

Published in the thesis Advanced Materialsis building 2020 work It was the first to show that it was possible to draw energy from moisture in the air using materials harvested from bacteria. The new study shows that any material, such as wood or silicon, can be broken down into tiny particles and regenerated with microscopic pores. But there are many questions about how to measure the product.

“What we found is, you can imagine, it’s like a small-scale, man-made cloud,” said Jun Yao, a professor of engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and senior author of the study. “It’s actually a huge source of very easily accessible, continuous clean electricity. Imagine having clean electricity everywhere you go.

Whether hiking in a mountain, desert, rural village or on a road, this includes forests.

The wind-powered generator, called “Air-gen,” harnesses energy from the ever-present moisture without relying on the sun or wind, providing continuous clean electricity. Unlike solar panels or wind turbines, which require specific environments to thrive, Air-Gens can go anywhere, Yao said.

Low humidity, however, means less energy can be harvested, he said. Winter, with drier air, produces less energy than summer.

The device, about the size of a fingernail and thinner than a single hair, is dotted with tiny holes called nanopores. The pores are less than 100 nanometers in diameter, or less than one-thousandth the width of a strand of human hair.

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The tiny holes allow water in the air to pass through creating a charge imbalance at the top and bottom of the device, effectively creating a battery that continues to run.

“We open the door wide to harvesting clean electricity from thin air,” Xiaomeng Liu, another author and UMass engineering graduate student, said in a statement.

A prototype produces only a small amount of energy — enough to light a dot on a large screen — and because of its size, the air-gens can be stacked on top of each other, with air gaps in between, Yao said. . Storing electricity is a separate issue.

Yao estimates that about 1 billion Air-Gens, stacked about the size of a refrigerator, would produce one kilowatt and power a home under somewhat optimal conditions. By making the tool more efficient the team hopes to reduce both the number of devices needed and the space they take up. Doing that can be challenging.

Scientists first need to figure out which material is most effective to use in different climates. Ultimately, Yao said, he hopes to develop a strategy to make the device larger without blocking the moisture it can capture. He wants too Find out how to efficiently stack devices on top of each other and how to engineer an air-gen so the same size device captures more energy.

It is not clear how long this will take.

“Once we develop this, you can put it anywhere,” Yao said.

It can be embedded in the wall paint in a home, made large in an unused space in a city, or littered throughout the hard spaces of an office. Because it can use almost any material, it can extract less from the environment than other forms of renewable energy.

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“The whole Earth is covered with a thick layer of moisture,” Yao said. “It’s an enormous source of clean energy. This is just the beginning of harnessing it.”

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