Energy from air: UMass researchers develop device that generates electricity from humidity

  • The Air-gen shown with a digital multimeter, which makes electric measurements. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/UMASS AMHERST, YAO AND LOVLEY LABS

  • A graphic rendering of protein nanowires generating electricity from water vapor in the air. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/UMASS AMHERST, YAO AND LOVLEY LABS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/18/2020 9:05:05 PM

AMHERST — In what researchers are describing as an unintentional discovery, a team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has developed new technology capable of generating electricity from moisture in the air.

The device, called an Air-gen, is “a totally new type of sustainable electricity production that has advantages over the preexisting sustainable technologies,” said Derek Lovley, a professor and microbiologist at UMass.

“We don’t need sunlight like solar does, we don’t need wind,” Lovley continued. “You can just put this device out on a table, and it produces electricity 24/7.”

Instead of using solar or wind energy, the thin-film device works by generating an electrical current from water vapor in the air, which is accomplished by connecting electrodes with conductive protein nanowires. The team creates the nanowires using a microbe called Geobacter, which Lovley discovered in the mud of the Potomac River over 30 years ago.

The Air-gen is capable of working even in environments as arid as the Sahara Desert, according to the researchers, and can be produced at “a very low energy cost,” Lovley said.

The technology is a collaboration between the laboratories of Lovley and UMass professor and electrical engineer Jun Yao, and was spurred by an “unexpected, remarkable finding” by Xiaomeng Liu, a doctoral student in Yao’s lab, said Lovley.

About two years ago, Liu said that he was initially using the nanowires to create a sensor device when he noticed that, given certain electrode configurations, the nanowires were capable of generating an electric current from humidity. For Liu, this technology is also remarkable for its ability to generate power under circumstances that have limited other green energy sources.

“Solar energy requires sunlight, wind energy requires the wind,” Liu said. “But the moisture exists in our environment everywhere, so that means that our device can work everywhere and in the night.”

At the moment, the Air-gen has only been used to power devices like small LCD or LED screens. But the thin-film devices can connect together to create a larger voltage, and the researchers intend for the device to eventually become commercially available and able to power larger electronics, such as cellphones or medical devices, and potentially even households at some point.

The main obstacle to powering larger devices has been difficulty producing large quantities of the protein nanowires, Lovley said. But within the last month, the team discovered an advance that can create large quantities of the nanowires at a much faster rate, which Lovley is optimistic may increase development.

The device is not the first type of technology to generate energy from moisture, the researchers explain in a paper that was published in the scientific journal “Nature” on Monday, but previous devices were only able to create power in sporadic bursts lasting less than 50 seconds.




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