Clean, unlimited and uninterrupted energy from the air: it is now reality

Elizabeth Smith

Engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed an innovative method to produce constant clean energy from the air, thus offering a new tool for the energy transition.

What they are achieving is not a miracle or a trick, but the result of scientists’ hard work. In a recently published study, they demonstrated the possibility of transforming any material into a device capable of collecting electricity from atmospheric moisture.

This news might seem familiar because only a few months ago, researchers at the Institute of Biomedicine at Monash University in Australia won accolades for isolating a bacterial enzyme capable of harnessing the low amounts of hydrogen in the atmosphere to generate electricity. However, the new study overcomes many previously existing barriers.

Professor Jun Yao and his team create the ‘Air-gen’

In 2020, Professor Jun Yao and his colleagues at UMass Amherst had already made a major breakthrough, long before the results obtained by Monash University. They had developed the first air generator called ‘Air-gen’, a device capable of generating electricity continuously from air.

This innovative device consisted of a thin, porous film of protein nanowires generated by the bacteria Geobacter sulfurreducens, enclosed between two flat electrodes.

The study showed that these tiny wires were able to generate an electric current between the two electrodes whenever they absorbed water vapour from the air. The research opens up unexpected new scenarios in the field of clean energy production.

Read also: Biomass energy production: a renewable revolution for energetic sustainability

The key to generating clean energy from air

Today, the research team has taken a significant step forward by discovering that the type of nanowire involved in the process is irrelevant. The real secret to producing clean energy from air lies solely in the size of the pores in the film.

“After making the discovery of geobacterium, we realised that the ability to generate electricity from air, which we called the ‘air-gen effect’, is a generic phenomenon,” Yao explains. “Basically, any kind of material can collect energy, provided it has a certain property. Namely, pores with a diameter of less than 100 nanometres, less than a thousandth of the width of a human hair.”

This discovery opens up new possibilities in the field of clean energy generation from air, expanding opportunities for the use of different materials and approaches in sustainable energy production.

Exploiting pores to produce clean energy from air

The idea is to create a new generator for producing electricity from air, in which the film has pores smaller than 100 nm in diameter.

This configuration allows water molecules to pass through the material. But due to the small size of the pores, the molecules collide against the edges, creating a kind of agitated flow growing from one side.

This phenomenon causes a charge imbalance between the two sides of the material, effectively generating an electric current similar to the formation of lightning in clouds.

Read also: Green hydrogen, all about the fuel revolutionizing the clean energy sector

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