Harnessing the power of humidity in the air to generate electricity may sound like a concept straight out of a science fiction novel, but for researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it's now a reality. They have discovered an innovative method to generate electricity from the moisture in the air, a breakthrough they have termed the 'generic Air-gen effect'.
At the core of this innovation is a device made from any material embedded with nanopores, each about a thousandth of the width of a human hair. These minute nanopores allow water molecules to pass through, creating a charge imbalance that results in electricity generation. The process bears resemblance to how a cloud, loaded with electrical charge, can produce lightning when conditions are right. Jun Yao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMass Amherst and the paper’s senior author, explains, "The air contains an enormous amount of electricity. Each droplet of a cloud 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 create a human-built, small-scale cloud that produces electricity for us predictably and continuously so that we can harvest it.”
This discovery is an expansion on the team's earlier research, which demonstrated that electricity could be harvested from the air using a unique material composed of protein nanowires. However, the 'Air-gen effect' takes it a step further by revealing that virtually any material with specific properties can harness electricity from the air. This realization broadens the scope for creating various types of harvesters tailored for different environments. Yao further elaborates, "What we realized after making the Geobacter discovery is that the ability to generate electricity from the air – what we then called the ‘Air-gen effect’ – turns out to be generic: literally any kind of material can harvest electricity from air, as long as it has a certain property."
Xiaomeng Liu, lead author of the paper and a graduate student at UMass Amherst, shares his enthusiasm about the development, stating, “We are opening up a wide door for harvesting clean electricity from thin air.” As the quest for sustainable, renewable energy sources intensifies, this groundbreaking discovery could represent a significant stride forward. The idea of gleaning electricity from the very air we breathe isn't just thrilling; it could potentially transform our approach to energy production and consumption, pushing us towards a more sustainable future.