Making Electricity Out of Thin Air: New Device Offers Clean Energy 24/7

The new technology creates electricity using moisture in the air, and it sounds too good to be true.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Illustration of a thin film of protein nanowires generating electricity from humidity University of Massachusetts Amherst

What if you could make electricity out of thin air? Does it sound too good to be true? Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed just such a device and they call it the "Air-gen," according to a press release by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Air-gen is the invention of electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley. "We are literally making electricity out of thin air," Yao said. "The Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7." 

The novel device uses a natural protein to create electricity from moisture in the air since moisture actually contains a certain amount of electrical charge. The technology is renewable, non-polluting, and low-cost. Furthermore, it can generate electricity even in regions with very little humidity, such as the Sahara Desert.

Unlike other forms of renewable energy such as wind and solar, this new tech does not require sunlight or wind. All it needs is a thin film of protein nanowires less than 10 microns thick, and it even works indoors. According to Lovley, this is "the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires yet."

But how does it work?

The bottom of the film is supported by an electrode, while the top is supported by a smaller electrode that only covers a portion of the nanowire film. Water vapor from the environment is absorbed by the film, and the electrical conductivity and surface chemistry of the protein nanowires, as well as the tiny pores between the nanowires inside the film, create the conditions for an electrical current to flow between the two electrodes. This is how it can generate clean energy 24/7.

With a current density of about 17 microamperes per square centimeter, the device generates a sustained voltage of around 0.5 volts over a 7-micrometer-thick film. This is enough for the current Air-gen devices to already power small electronics. Now, the researchers are seeking to bring their innovation to a commercial scale.

"The ultimate goal is to make large-scale systems. For example, the technology might be incorporated into wall paint that could help power your home. Or, we may develop stand-alone air-powered generators that supply electricity off the grid," said Yao.

Once they reach an industrial scale for wire production, the researchers believe that they can make large systems that will contribute significantly to sustainable energy generation. Yao adds that the current applications are "just the beginning of a new era of protein-based electronic devices." We can only imagine what the future holds.

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