Technology is always in search of alternatives, of new forms of survival, inventions that represent new options for the satisfaction of our needs based on tools that we find in the environment.
Recently, scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (USA) have developed a device that uses a natural protein to generate electricity from moisture in the air.
The new technology, says its creators in the journal “Nature” could be used for the development of electronic wearable devices such as health monitors, smartwatches, and even mobile phones that do not have to be charged periodically. At the same time, it could have significant implications in the fight against climate change and the future of renewable energy.
The researchers call the device an “air generator” or “air-powered generator” (Air-gen). It uses electrically conductive protein nanowires from the vapor naturally present in the atmosphere.
“We are producing electricity out of nothing,” says electrical engineer Jun Yao. “The Air-gen generates clean energy 24 hours seven days a week,” adds microbiologist Derek Lovely. An expert in electronic materials based on sustainable biology for three decades, Lovley believes that this application is “the most surprising and exciting” obtained so far.
A new technology that is inexpensive and does not harm the environment
Generating electricity from moisture represents a new invention developed in Yao’s laboratory that is not
Polluting, it is renewable and also low cost. Power can be generated even in areas with extremely low humidity, such as the Sahara desert.
The electricity that is generated from moisture has some advantages over other forms of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, Lovley says because unlike these other renewable energy sources, the Air-gen does not require sunlight. or wind, and “even works indoors.”
The researchers explain that the Air-gen device only requires a thin film of protein nanowires less than 10 microns thick. The bottom of the film rests on one electrode, while a smaller electrode that covers only part of the nanowire film sits on top.
The film absorbs water vapor from the atmosphere. A combination of the electrical conductivity and surface chemistry of the protein nanowires, along with the fine pores between the nanowires within the film, establishes the conditions that generate an electrical current between the two electrodes.
On what devices will this new invention work?
The researchers say that the current generation of Air-gen devices can power small electronic devices and they hope to bring the invention to a commercial-scale soon. The next steps they plan include developing a small Air-gen “patch” that can power portable electronic devices such as health and fitness monitors and smartwatches, eliminating the requirement for traditional batteries. They also hope to be able to apply them to mobile phones to eliminate periodic charging.
Lovley’s lab recently developed a new microbial strain to produce protein nanowires faster and cheaper. “We turned E. coli into a protein nanowire factory,” they say.
Yao had worked at Harvard University before coming to Amherst. There he had designed useful electronic devices with the protein nanowires harvested from Geobacter.
Xiaomeng Liu, a student in Yao’s lab, was the one who came full circle. While developing sensor devices, he noticed something unexpected: I saw that when the nanowires made contact with the electrodes in a specific way, the devices generated a current. I found that exposure to atmospheric moisture was essential and that the protein nanowires absorbed water, producing a voltage gradient across the device, “he explains. It was here that the production of electricity from the humidity of the air was discovered.