New Star Trek-style device harvests clean energy out of thin air

AMHERST, Mass. — Scientists have developed a pioneering device that draws clean energy from thin air. The Air-gen could revolutionize green energy production, potentially offering an inexpensive and sustainable power source for cars, trains, and planes.

“The air contains an enormous amount of electricity. Think of a cloud, which is nothing more than a mass of water droplets,” explains Dr. Jun Yao, a senior author at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “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.”

This groundbreaking technique can be scaled up for worldwide use, applicable in diverse environments, from the Amazon rainforest to the Sahara.

“Imagine a future in which clean electricity is readily accessible wherever you go,” Dr. Yao proposes in a university release. “The general Air-gen effect could make this future a reality.”

The core of this human-made cloud relies on a phenomenon termed the “generic Air-gen effect.” Three years prior, the same team demonstrated that electricity could be consistently harvested from the air using a special material composed of protein nanowires cultivated from the bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens.

The discovery could be a significant stride towards saving our planet and making electric vehicles more commercially viable.

“Any material can harvest electricity from the air, as long as it has a specific property. It just needs to have pores smaller than 100 nm (nanometers) – less than a thousandth of the width of a human hair,” Dr. Yao explains.

dark image of a floating yellow platform and blue strings of electricity beneath it
Nanopores are the secret to making electricity from thin air. (credit: Derek Lovley/Ella Maru Studio)

This principle arises from a factor known as the “mean free path” — the distance a single water molecule travels in the air before colliding with another molecule. The researchers designed an electricity harvester based on this concept, employing a thin layer of material filled with nanopores smaller than 100nm. The pores allow water molecules to move from the upper to the lower part of the material.

This setup creates a charge imbalance similar to that in a cloud, as the upper part accrues more charge relative to the lower part. This essentially forms a battery that operates as long as there is any humidity in the air. The harvester can be constructed from various types of materials, offering numerous choices for cost-effective and environmentally adaptable fabrications.

“You could envision harvesters made of one type of material for rainforest environments, and another for more arid regions,” suggests Dr. Yao.

As humidity is ubiquitous, the harvester would operate 24/7, irrespective of the weather or time of day. It circumvents one of the primary challenges of technologies such as wind or solar, which only function under specific conditions.

Given that the Air-gen device’s thickness is merely a fraction of the width of a human hair, thousands can be stacked atop each other, amplifying the energy produced without increasing the device’s footprint. An Air-gen device could potentially deliver kilowatt-level power for general electrical utility usage.

“This is very thrilling. We are paving the way for harvesting clean electricity out of thin air,” adds Xiaomeng Liu, a graduate student and lead author of the study.

The device is described in detail in the journal Advanced Materials.

This isn’t the only high-tech invention using the air

Earlier in 2023, a team in Switzerland created a device that can harvest water from thin air. The “Star Trek” style device can therefore provide the ingredients to make hydrogen fuel — a clean source of energy. The solar powered system opens the door to cheap green gasoline, diesel, and kerosene used for air travel.

“To realize a sustainable society, we need ways to store renewable energy as chemicals that can be used as fuels and feedstocks in industry. Solar energy is the most abundant form of renewable energy, and we are striving to develop economically-competitive ways to produce solar fuels,” says principal investigator Professor Kevin Sivula of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne in a media release.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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  1. Cost versus cost effectiveness?
    Useable amount of electricity feasible?
    Can it be developed on its own without being funded by oppressive taxes on already reliable sources?

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