Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have come up with a way to create electricity from the air, possibly opening a pathway for a new and continuous form of renewable energy.
The team created a device from what it calls the Air-gen effect, in a sense a man-made cloud that can be made out of almost any kind of material and produce energy from the humidity in the air. The key to the device is that it has to contain holes less than 100 nanometers in diameter to flesh the electricity out. The research was published in Advanced Materials.
“This is very exciting,” said Xiaomeng Liu, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering at UMass Amherst and the paper’s lead author in a report on the university’s website. “We are opening up a wide door for harvesting clean electricity from thin air.”
The air contains a significant amount of electricity, according to the research, specifically through moisture. Those water droplets contain a charge and when the environment is right produces vast amounts of energy, think a cloud producing lightning, the authors said.
The Gen-air effect allows water to pass through and undergo an “absorption-desorption exchange” resulting in a surface charge. According to the paper, the top exposed interface experiences more interaction than the bottom sealed interface in the small device, creating a “sustained charging gradient for continuous electric output.”
“Think of a cloud, which is nothing more than a mass of water droplets,” Jun Yao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering and the paper’s senior author, told the university. “Each of those droplets contains a charge, and when conditions are right, the cloud can produce a lightning bolt – but we don’t know how to reliably capture electricity from lightning. What we’ve done is to create a human-built, small-scale cloud that produces electricity for us predictably and continuously so that we can harvest it.”
A Constant Energy Source Regardless of Natural Conditions
Since the air is full of humidity there is always an available source to produce energy. It could continuously produce energy regardless of conditions, which are necessary for solar and wind generation, for example.
However, the key, according to the research, is the size of the material it is pushed through. In this case less than 100 nanometers in diameter, or less than a thousandth of the width of a human hair.
Due to the incredibly small size, thousands of the Gen-air devices could be stacked increasing the amount of energy created without expanding their footprint. The research finds such a device would be able to produce kilowatt-level power.
Then because the device could be made out of any material, it could be adapted to various environments – wet, dry, cold, or hot – and still produce energy.
The research builds on previously completed UMass Amherst research. Yao and Derek Lovely, a microbiology professor, published research in 2020 that showed electricity could be continuously harvested using biologically created nanowires. Yao said the expansion from that research is that the material could be made of any property, not just biological in nature, if it had holes smaller than 100 nanometers.
The new research was supported by the National Science Foundation, Sony Group, Link Foundation, and the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst.
“The idea is simple,” Yao said in the university report, “but it’s never been discovered before, and it opens all kinds of possibilities.”