Sure, we all complain about the humidity on a sweltering summer day. But it turns out that same humidity could be a source of clean, pollution-free energy, according to a new study.
“Air humidity is a vast, sustainable reservoir of energy that, unlike solar and wind, is continuously available,” said the study, which was published recently in the journal Advanced Materials.
“This is very exciting,” said Xiaomeng Liu, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and the paper’s lead author. “We are opening up a wide door for harvesting clean electricity from thin air.”
In fact, researchers say that nearly any material can be turned into a device that continuously harvests electricity from humidity in the air.
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Air ‘contains an enormous amount of electricity’
“The air contains an enormous amount of electricity,” said Jun Yao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and the paper’s senior author. “Think of a cloud, which is nothing more than a mass of water droplets. Each of those droplets 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 to create a human-built, small-scale cloud that produces electricity for us predictably and continuously so that we can harvest it.”
The heart of the man-made cloud depends on what Yao and his colleagues refer to as an air-powered generator, or the “air-gen” effect for short.
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‘Significant implications for the future of renewable energy’
The new study builds upon research from a study published in 2020. That year, scientists said this new technology “could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change and in the future of medicine.” That study indicated that energy was able to be pulled from humidity by material that came from bacteria; the new study finds that almost any material, like silicon or wood, could also be used.
The device that’s mentioned in the study is the size of a fingernail and thinner than a single hair, and is dotted with tiny holes known as nanopores, the Washington Post reported. “The holes have a diameter smaller than 100 nanometers, or less than a thousandth of the width of a strand of human hair,” the Post said.
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Power from air could be harvested 24/7, rain or shine, night or day
Additionally, according to a statement from the university, since humidity is ever-present, the harvester would run 24/7, rain or shine, at night and whether or not the wind blows, which solves one of the major problems of technologies like wind or solar, which only work under certain conditions.
“The work opens a wide door for the broad exploration of sustainable electricity from air,” the study said.
Yao told the Washington Post that roughly 1 billion air-gens, stacked to be roughly the size of a refrigerator, could produce a kilowatt and partly power a home in ideal conditions.
“Imagine a future world in which clean electricity is available anywhere you go,” said Yao. “The generic air-gen effect means that this future world can become a reality.”