Almost any material can harvest energy from nothing, scientists say

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Almost any material can be used to turn energy from moisture in the air into electricity, scientists have found in a discovery that could lead to the continued production of clean energy with little pollution.

The research, published in an article in Advanced Materials, builds on 2020 work that first showed that energy could be extracted from moisture in the air using materials harvested from bacteria. The new study shows that almost any material can be used, such as wood or silicon, as long as it can be broken down into small particles and remade with microscopic pores. But there are many questions about how to scale the product.

“What we came up with, you can imagine, is like a small-scale man-made cloud,” said Jun Yao, a professor of engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the study’s lead author. “It really is a huge source of clean, continuous electricity that is very easily accessible. Imagine having clean electricity available wherever you go.

This could include a forest, while hiking in the mountains, in a desert, in a rural village or on the road.

The compressed air generator, known as “Air-gen”, would offer clean electricity continuously because it uses the energy of moisture, which is always present, rather than depending on the sun or wind. Unlike solar panels or wind turbines, which need specific environments to thrive, air generators could eventually go anywhere, Yao said.

Less humidity, however, would mean less energy could be harvested, he added. Winters, with drier air, would produce less energy than summers.

The device, the size of a fingernail and thinner than a hair, is dotted with tiny holes called nanopores. The holes are less than 100 nanometers in diameter, less than one thousandth the width of a strand of human hair.

The tiny holes allow water in the air to pass in a way that would create a charge imbalance in the top and bottom of the device, creating a battery that works continuously.

“We are opening a great door to harvesting clean electricity from nothing,” Xiaomeng Liu, another author and UMass engineering graduate student, said in a statement.

While a prototype only produces a small amount of power – almost enough to power a point of light on a large screen – due to its size, Yao said Air-people can be stacked on top of each other. others, potentially with air spaces between them. . Electricity storage is a separate issue, he added.

Yao estimated that about 1 billion Air-gens, stacked to be about the size of a refrigerator, could produce a kilowatt and partially power a home under ideal conditions. The team hopes to reduce both the number of devices needed and the space they take up by making the tool more efficient. Doing this could be a challenge.

Scientists must first determine which material would be most effective to use in different climates. Eventually, Yao said he hopes to develop a strategy to enlarge the device without blocking moisture that can be captured. He also wants to understand how to efficiently stack devices on top of each other and how to design the Air-gen so that a device of the same size captures more energy.

We don’t know how long it will take.

“Once we optimize it, you can put it anywhere,” Yao said.

It can be integrated into the mural of a house, made on a larger scale in unused space in a city, or littered in the hard-to-reach spaces of an office. And because it can use almost any material, it could extract less from the environment than other forms of renewable energy.

“The whole earth is covered with a thick layer of moisture,” Yao said. “It’s a huge source of clean energy. This is just the start of using this.

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