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Bio-electronic device generates electricity from ‘thin air’

Image credit: Dreamstime

A device which generates electricity from the moisture in the air around it could be a boon to renewable electricity production, its developers have claimed.

A team from the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMA) have called the device ‘Air-gen’ and it uses a natural protein to create electricity from surrounding moisture.

The Air-gen connects electrodes to the protein nanowires in such a way that electrical current is generated from the water vapor naturally present in the atmosphere.

“We are literally making electricity out of thin air,” said electrical engineer Jun Yao. “The Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7.”

The new technology is non-polluting, renewable and low-cost and can generate power even in areas with extremely low humidity such as the Sahara Desert. It has significant advantages over other forms of renewable energy including solar and wind because it does not require sunlight or wind, and can work indoors.

nanowire electricity production

Prototype Air-gen device

Image credit: UMass Amherst/Yao and Lovley labs

Air-gen requires only a thin film of protein nanowires less than 10 microns thick. The bottom of the film rests on an electrode, while a smaller electrode that covers only part of the nanowire film sits on top.

The film absorbs water vapor from the atmosphere. The electrical conductivity and surface chemistry of the protein nanowires, coupled with the fine pores between the nanowires within the film, establishes appropriate conditions to generate an electrical current between the two electrodes.

The researchers believe the current generation of Air-gen devices are able to power small electronics, and they expect to bring the invention to commercial scale soon. They are planning to develop a small Air-gen “patch” that can power electronic wearables such as health and fitness monitors and smart watches, which would eliminate the requirement for traditional batteries. They also hope to develop Air-gens to apply to cell phones to eliminate periodic charging.

But the “ultimate goal”, Yao admits, is to develop “large-scale systems” that could, for example, be incorporated into wall paint to help power your home: “Once we get to an industrial scale for wire production, I fully expect that we can make large systems that will make a major contribution to sustainable energy production,” he said.

Fellow UMA researcher Derek Lovley has recently developed a new microbial strain that can rapidly and inexpensively mass produce protein nanowires.

“We turned E. coli into a protein nanowire factory,” he said. “With this new scalable process, protein nanowire supply will no longer be a bottleneck to developing these applications.”

Earlier this month researchers unveiled prototype “anti-solar panels” which could be used to generate electricity at night using waste thermal energy.

nanowire electricity production

Image credit: UMass Amherst/Yao and Lovley labs

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