Scientists find the secret of generating electricity from thin air

nanopores. Credit: Derek Lovley/Ella Maru Studio.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a group of engineers have made an exciting discovery that could allow us to generate electricity from the moisture in the air around us.

This process creates tiny holes, so-called nanopores, with a width of less than 100 nanometers in various materials.

It’s so small, it’s about a thousand times smaller than a human hair!

This work was published in the journal Advanced Materials.

Xiaomeng Liu, a graduate student and one of the study’s lead authors, says this discovery could open up new ways of generating clean electricity, literally from scratch.

Assistant Professor Jun Yao, the other lead author, explains that the air is full of electricity. Imagine a cloud made up of a huge mass of water droplets.

Each droplet carries an electrical charge that can sometimes produce lightning under the right conditions. However, we have not been able to use this electricity so far. The team created a smaller, man-made version of a cloud that produces electricity continuously and in a controlled and predictable manner.

The key to this process is what scientists call the “generic air-gen effect.” This builds on previous work from 2020, where the team showed that a specific species of bacteria, Geobacter Sulfurreducens, can generate electricity from the air.

But they have now found that almost any material is capable of doing this, as long as it has one important property: tiny holes less than 100 nanometers wide.

Why so small? Well, that refers to how far a water molecule travels in air before it encounters another molecule — about 100 nanometers. The team used this knowledge to design a ‘power harvester’.

It is a thin layer of material full of nanopores that allows water molecules to move from side to side.

However, because the pores are so small, the water molecules often hit the sides, creating a charge imbalance. This imbalance acts like a battery that runs as long as there is moisture in the air.

Yao describes the idea as simple but groundbreaking and opens up many new possibilities. These harvesters could be made from different materials to adapt to different environments – from humid rainforests to arid deserts. In addition, they worked around the clock, day and night, regardless of the weather. This solves a major problem with other renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar power, which rely on certain conditions to operate.

Another benefit of this technology is that it can be stacked to generate more power without taking up more space. Imagine many layers of this power-harvesting material, each a fraction the width of a human hair, working together to generate enough electricity for our daily electricity needs.

Yao envisions a future where clean electricity is available everywhere. Thanks to this discovery, it’s not just a dream, but a possibility that could become a reality.

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