Scientists Working To Generate Electricity From Thin Air Make Breakthrough

According to a study published in Advanced Materials, scientists have made a breakthrough in generating electricity from thin air through the use of an “Air-gen” or air generator.

Scientists have invented a device that can continuously generate electricity from thin air, offering a glimpse of a possible sustainable energy source that can be made of almost any material and runs on the ambient humidity that surrounds all of us, reports a new study.  

The novel “air generator,” or Air-gen, is made from materials with holes that are under 100 nanometers in length, which is a scale thousand times smaller than a human hair. This design can pull electricity from water droplets in the air for much longer periods than previous concepts, the researchers report, suggesting that it could eventually provide a continuous and sustainable source of power. Researchers hope the technique could eventually help to fight climate change by serving as an alternative to fossil fuels.

If you’ve ever seen a bolt of lightning streak across the sky, you’ve already had a sneak peek of the untapped power that is hidden in ambient air. This energy is fueled by the electrical charges of water droplets in the air, a phenomenon that has inspired many attempts to harvest humidity by inducing imbalances in charged waters with special devices. Many of these techniques only work for short periods, or require expensive materials, which presents practical challenges for efficiency and scalability.

Now, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, have developed an Air-gen device that yields electricity from contact with water droplets that pass through its porous material. In this way, the Air-gen technology creates “a spontaneous and sustained charging gradient for continuous electric output” that “opens a wide door for the broad exploration of sustainable electricity from ambient air,” according to a study published on Wednesday in Advanced Materials.

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“One day we may get clean electricity literally anywhere, anytime by using Air-gen technology (i.e., the concept of ‘ubiquitous powering’), because air humidity is 24/7 continuous and everywhere,” Jun Yao, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMass Amherst and senior author of the study, said in an email to Motherboard.

“The basis for broad-scale power is that the air contains a huge amount of electricity,” he added. “So if we make Air-gen bigger, we can get larger-volume power—that volume can certainly extend to usage for daily-life functions.”

Yao and his colleagues initially stumbled upon the potential of the Air-gen effect a few years ago during an experiment with biologically synthesized nanowires. After successfully producing electricity from the tiny wires, the team began to explore the possibility of repeating the same technique with a host of other materials. 

Researchers in Switzerland have revealed in a study published in the journal Nature that a paralyzed man named Gert-Jan Oskam can walk naturally again with brain and spine implants.

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