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Making Energy From Miniscule Man-Made Clouds

A team of scientists at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has discovered how to generate energy from thin air by creating man-made clouds. Most importantly, the method can be conducted using "a broad range of inorganic, organic, and biological materials." The flexibility of this new form of energy production shows incredible promise for scaling what could be a virtually limitless source of clean energy. The paper describing the groundbreaking results, published in the scientific journal Advanced Materials, has enormous implications for the future of clean energy. 

"What we have invented, you can imagine it's like a small-scale, man-made cloud," Jun Yao, a professor of engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the senior author of the study, was quoted by the Washington Post. "This is really a very easily accessible, enormous source of continuous clean electricity. Imagine having clean electricity available wherever you go."

This breakthrough is just the newest major advancement in a form of electricity production - sourcing energy from thin air - that scientists have been dreaming about for over 100 years. But previous success stories were limited by the high expense and specificity of materials associated with the methodology. Now, the process can be carried out with any material that can be manufactured with a porous surface containing nanopores which allow the passage of humidity. These nanopores, which each have a diameter of less than 100 nanometers, or less than one one-thousandth of a human hair, can facilitate a dynamic adsorption-desorption exchange, resulting in surface charging.The whole device is smaller than a human fingernail, and can be used in virtually any setting. This new material-agnostic technology and the flexibility of its application could be the breakthrough that allows the futuristic source of energy production to become a viable option for commercialization in coming decades.  Related: Oil Prices Climb As U.S. Rig Count Sees Another Double-Digit Decline

This newest iteration of the technology, which has been named "Air-gen," is the progression of an earlier study, published in Nature in 2020, which was less adaptable and showed much less promise for scalability. While the principle was the same, creating energy out of the humidity in the air around us, it had to be done through a film made up of protein nanowires sourced from the bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens. At the time, the researchers claimed that this technology "could have interesting implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change, and the future of medicine." Well, the future just got one big step closer. 

"[Air-gen] could be embedded in wall paint in a home, made at a larger scale in unused space in a city or littered throughout an office's hard-to-get-to spaces," the Washington Post reported. "And because it can use nearly any material, it could extract less from the environment than other renewable forms of energy." However, just because nearly any material can be used, doesn't mean that materials should be applied indiscriminately. The researchers still have a lot of ground to cover in terms of testing which materials are the best conductors, and which aren't really worth their while. Considering how many materials are potentially useful, this will likely be a large and lengthy effort. The team also hopes to learn how to manipulate the size of the device without compromising its efficacy, as well as how to stack the devices to create a more productive system. In short, it's a brand new technology and a lot of refining will be necessary before the device is ready to upend the clean energy sector. 

"Once we optimize [Air-gen], you can put it anywhere," Yao said. "The entire earth is covered with a thick layer of humidity," Yao said. "It's an enormous source of clean energy. This is just the beginning in making use of that." 

By Haley Zaremba for

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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the… More