For decades, scientists have been on the prowl for advanced battery materials with features such as superior energy density or those that confer extra-long battery life leading to such futuristic designs as bendable batteries that mimic the human spine, to breathable nanochain structures.
But maybe they have been looking in the wrong places, with nature’s own biological kingdom providing a potential solution.
Generating electricity from thin air might sound like the stuff of science fiction; yet, scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have unveiled a novel technology based on nanowire-sprouting bacteria that does just that.
UMass electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley have introduced the Air-gen (or air-powered generator), which uses an unusual microbe belonging to the Geobacter genus, first discovered in the muddy sediments of the Potomac River. The trick? They produce conductive protein nanowires.
Air-gen is able to generate an electrical current directly from water vapour in the atmosphere, including from very dry air such as that in Nevada or the Sahara Desert.
The innovators have described Air-gen as “the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires yet”.
How Air-Gen Works
Air-gen works with a thin film of protein nanowires just 7 microns thick. The device connects electrodes to the ultra-thin film, with the bottom of the film resting on one electrode while a smaller electrode sits on top but covers only part of the nanowire film.
Air-gen uses a combination of the surface chemistry of the protein nanowires and electrical conductivity coupled with the fine pores between the nanowires within the film to generate a current between the two electrodes.
The result: a low-cost, non-polluting and renewable battery that generates electricity 24/7, requires neither sun nor wind, and can also be used indoors, the researchers say.
The device works best in 45% humidity but will also work well in regions as dry as the Sahara Desert or as humid as New Orleans.
To be sure, Air-gen is not about to kill the renewable energy industry any time soon: A single device produces a sustained voltage of around 0.5 volts, with a current density of about 17 microamperes per square centimetre. Related: Why Cramer Is Wrong About Oil Stocks
It’s not much energy, but the researchers say it can be amplified by connecting multiple devices together.
For instance, connecting 17 Air-Gen devices together can generate ~10 volts, which is enough to power a cell phone and other personal electronics such as a FitBit or similar wearables.
It’s also a big step-up from its predecessors: Previous research on hydrovoltaic power generation using nanomaterials such as graphene or polymers has only managed to produce short bursts of electricity lasting a few seconds.
The team says their ultimate goal is to create large-scale systems. To that end, they have suggested incorporating the technology into wall paint to power homes or develop stand-alone air-powered generators that supply electricity off the grid.
One small hurdle: growing Geobacter to harvest nanowires is difficult, and the scientists say they will use E.coli instead--a common bacteria found in the intestines of people and animals, since it’s much easier to culture and has similar electric generation capacity.
"We turned E. coli into a protein nanowire factory," Lovley has gushed."With this new scalable process, protein nanowire supply will no longer be a bottleneck to developing these applications."
Before you cringe at the thought of poop bacteria painted on your walls, bear in mind that most E.coli strains are harmless and part of a healthy intestinal tract. Hopefully, Lovley and his team will be careful to keep the bad guys out.
The exact modus operandi that Air-gen uses to generate electricity from thin air has everybody, including its creators, stumped. Related: U.S. Gasoline Prices Jump On Outages At Major Oil Refineries
Dirk de Beer of the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology has expressed his reservations, telling Science Magazine that the paper made him "a bit concerned" because he isn’t sure where the electrons powering the Air-gen were coming from.“I think a deeper understanding … is needed,” he has posited.
What we can be sure of is that Air-gen is not breaking the Law of Conservation of Energy and that ‘free electricity’ must be coming from somewhere. But hey, we do use many technologies without a proper clue of how they work.
In his book Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension, Samuel Arbesman argues that modern machine ecology is evolving into something much more like natural biological systems than the clear, rule-based systems that humans tend to design.
That seems to describe Air-gen to a tee.
It’s not the craziest potential battery solution out there, either, even if E.coli makes you cringe. In fact, new potential ‘breakthroughs’ in this segment seem to come out almost weekly, so something’s got to give sooner rather than later.
Lithium-sulfur batteries hope to one day outperform lithium-ion batteries, and IBM is sourcing its new battery from sea water, while sand hopes to give batteries a much longer lifespan, and science is even trying to figure out a way to have human beings use their own body energy to power their devices and replace lithium-ion with human batteries.
It’s all going back to nature in a big way, so air was bound to come into the equation.
By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com
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