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New green device generates electricity by capturing moisture from the air

A device invented by scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst could be used to generate electricity from moisture in the air, aided by a natural protein. The advance suggests technology may have an important role to play in future renewable energy initiatives.

The “air-gen” device is an air-powered generator in which a film of protein nanowires less than 10 microns thick is hooked up to electrodes to generate electrical current from water vapor that naturally occurs in the atmosphere. A combination of the electrical connectivity and surface chemistry of the protein nanowires, together with the fine pores between the nanowires and film, is what creates the conditions for generating an electrical current between the pair of electrodes.

This electricity generation can be done 24/7 with no requirement of sunlight or wind. According to its creators, it can also be carried out indoors, and even used to generate power in extremely arid areas such as the Sahara Desert.

The performance of the technology has already been demonstrated. In a peer-reviewed study, the device was used to produce a sustained voltage of around 0.5 volts across a 7-micrometre-thick film, with a current density of around 17 microamperes per square centimeter. Now the researchers plan to scale up the demonstration to showcase what a powerful tool this could be.

lovley_air_gen_device 1
UMass Amherst/Yao and Lovley labs

“We actually see that this technology may be applied to broad scopes of [applications],” Jun Yao, an assistant professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told Digital Trends. “The rationale is similar [to an ordinary battery]. If one can make a small battery cell, then one can connect many of them to power up various things, including a Tesla car. We basically have shown that we can make this small device — so in principle, we can connect many of them to power up things. [That] could be small wearable devices, portable electronics, or remote stations.”

Moving forward, the researchers say that they want to discover more information about the “fine details” of the mechanism. This could help to improve its powering capabilities or potentially aid in the creation of future synthetic materials that would drive the production of cheaper energy.

“We, of course, hope to commercialize the technology in the big hope to benefit the society by producing more green energy,” Yao said. “As researchers, we stay focused on understanding the mechanism and developing engineering strategies. [However], we welcome partners to focus on the development part to commercialize it.”

A paper describing the research, titled “Power generation from ambient humidity using protein nanowires,” was recently published in the journal Nature.

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