Scientists have dreamed of creating energy out of thin air for over a century. Nikola Tesla was already conducting experiments along these lines in the 1930s. But recently the calls for immaculate energy conception have grown louder. Transitioning away from fossil fuels in time to avoid the worst of the climate crisis will be the single biggest cooperative undertaking the world has ever tried to achieve, and the imperative has pushed scientists to dream big. Some of the resulting brainstorming and experimentation sounds ripped from the pages of a science fiction dimestore novel, or like wishful thinking rather than methodology. But scientists have been getting closer and closer to making the impossible possible: harvesting energy from the air.
In 2021, researchers from the American University of Massachusetts Amherst announced that they had invented a device called the Air-gen, short for air-powered generator. The apparatus is capable of using a naturally occurring protein to turn humidity in the surrounding air to create electricity. This is done through a film made up of protein nanowires sourced from the bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens. The team of researchers claimed that this technology “could have interesting implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change, and the future of medicine.” The film, which is just a few microns thick, has proven to be effective. "We are literally making electricity out of thin air. The Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7. It's the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires yet,” explained researcher and paper author Jun Yao.
A year later, in 2022, the European Union began funding for a new project – called CATCHER – which similarly aims to create energy from atmospheric humidity, but in this case through the use of cells made from zirconium oxide, a ceramic material used in all kinds of applications from dental implants to nuclear fuel rods. “When exploring the properties of nanomaterials made from zirconium oxide seven years ago, researchers started to see evidence of hygroelectricity,” the European Commission's Horizon magazine reported in December. In the last seven years, they’ve come a long way, but the technology is still a very far cry from scalability and practical application. At present, “an 8-by-5-centimetre plate of their material can generate around 0.9 volt in a laboratory with a humidity of around 50%,” or about the output of one half of an AA battery.
Now, just this year, scientists at Monash University in Australia have made yet another air-to-energy breakthrough. This time, the key material is an enzyme named Huc. The enzyme is found in the bacterium Mycobacterium smegmatis, a cousin of the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis and leprosy. Huc is already a powerhouse of air-to-energy conversion, used by the bacterium to create energy in extreme environments with few other energy sources.
Once extracted, the researchers say that the enzyme can be used to power “a range of small portable electrical devices [...] including biometric sensors, environmental monitors, digital clocks, and calculators or simple computers.” So far, the various applications for Huc exist in more of a thought experiment than a tested hypothesis, but the scientists responsible think that Huc has the potential for greatness. “"When you provide Huc with more concentrated hydrogen, it produces more electrical current," said lead author Rhys Grinter. "Which means you could use it in fuel cells to power more complex devices, like smart watches, or smartphones, more portable complex computers, and possibly even a car."
Projects aiming to create energy from air are clearly still in their nascency, but it would be difficult to overstate the potential ramifications if one of these technologies were to become scalable. Creating energy from thin air would solve countless issues related to climate change and other negative environmental externalities connected with energy production. Furthermore, a technology such as a bacterial enzyme would theoretically be accessible anywhere in the world, making the geopolitics of energy production more fair and decentrally distributed. In short, it could upend the global economy as we know it. Someday.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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