Scientists Harvest Electricity From “Thin Air” Using Strange Material
“The air contains an enormous amount of electricity.”
In intriguing new research, scientists are continuing to explore the finding that the electrical currents surrounding us can be harvested — using a material made from living organisms.
In a statement, the University of Massachusetts Amherst announced that electrical engineer Jun Yao and his team had built upon prior research in a new paper in the journal Advanced Materials into what they call the “Air-gen effect.” The basic idea? Growing conducive nanofilms out of bacteria that can pull small amounts of electricity from the water vapor in the air.
“The air contains an enormous amount of electricity,” Yao said in the school’s statement. “Think of a cloud, which is nothing more than a mass of water droplets. 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.”
Because of its bacterial foundation, the material’s initial discovery in 2020 was heralded as an intriguing new avenue for green energy tech. Yao and his team have continued to explore the concept, and he says they’ve found the concept is more generalizable than previously believed.
“What we realized after making the Geobacter discovery,” Yao said, “is that the ability to generate electricity from the air… turns out to be generic: literally any kind of material can harvest electricity from air, as long as it has a certain property.”
That property, the research update notes, is what’s known as the “mean free path” or distance between molecules. In the case of water molecules suspended in air, that distance is 100 nanometers, or a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair.
So long as the film has those tiny perforations, his team says, the material seems to be irrelevant. Though the team is mostly focused on generating minuscule amounts of electricity for wearable devices right now — already raising interesting new possibilities for consumer tech — the real question is likely to be how far the phenomenon can scale.
More on similar research: Scientists Discover Enzyme That Can Turn Air Into Electricity