Clean Energy 24/7: Engineers Use Nanotechnology To Harvest Electricity “From Thin Air”

Harvesting Electricity From Air

Engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed a technique for harvesting electricity from air humidity, dubbed the “generic Air-gen effect.” According to research published in Advanced Materials, any material with nanopores less than 100 nanometers in diameter can be utilized to continuously generate electricity.

Engineers describe the “generic Air-gen effect”—nearly any material can be engineered with nanopores to harvest, cost-effective, scalable, interruption-free electricity.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have discovered a method to harvest continuous electricity from air humidity using any material with nanopores smaller than 100 nanometers, called the “generic Air-gen effect.” This technique, scalable and interruption-free, paves the way for a broad range of cost-effective, continuous electricity generation from various materials, overcoming limitations of condition-dependent renewables like solar and wind power.

A team of engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has recently shown that nearly any material can be turned into a device that continuously harvests electricity from humidity in the air. The secret lies in being able to pepper the material with nanopores less than 100 nanometers in diameter. The research was published in the journal Advanced Materials.

“This is very exciting,” says Xiaomeng Liu, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering at UMass Amherst’s College of Engineering and the paper’s lead author. “We are opening up a wide door for harvesting clean electricity from thin air.”

“The air contains an enormous amount of electricity,” says Jun Yao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering at UMass Amherst, and the paper’s senior author. “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.”

Nanopores Making Electricity From Thin Air

Nanopores are the secret to making electricity from thin air. These nanopores allow water molecules to pass through and create a charge imbalance, essentially forming a battery that runs as long as there is humidity. Credit: Derek Lovley/Ella Maru Studio

The heart of the man-made cloud depends on what Yao and his colleagues call the “generic Air-gen effect,” and it builds on work that Yao and co-author Derek Lovley, Distinguished Professor of Microbiology at UMass Amherst, had previously completed in 2020 showing that electricity could be continuously harvested from the air using a specialized material made of protein nanowires grown from the bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens.

“What we realized after making the Geobacter discovery,” says Yao, “is that the ability to generate electricity from the air—what we then called the ‘Air-gen effect’—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? “It needs to have holes smaller than 100 nanometers (nm), or less than a thousandth of the width of a human hair.”

This is because of a parameter known as the “mean free path,” the distance a single molecule of a substance, in this case, water in the air, travels before it bumps into another single molecule of the same substance. When water molecules are suspended in the air, their mean free path is about 100 nm.

“The idea is simple, but it’s never been discovered before, and it opens all kinds of possibilities.” — Jun Yao

Yao and his colleagues realized that they could design an electricity harvester based around this number. This harvester would be made from a thin layer of material filled with nanopores smaller than 100 nm that would let water molecules pass from the upper to the lower part of the material. But because each pore is so small, the water molecules would easily bump into the pore’s edge as they pass through the thin layer. This means that the upper part of the layer would be bombarded with many more charge-carrying water molecules than the lower part, creating a charge imbalance, like that in a cloud, as the upper part increased its charge relative to the lower part. This would effectually create a battery—one that runs as long as there is any humidity in the air.

“The idea is simple,” says Yao, “but it’s never been discovered before, and it opens all kinds of possibilities.” The harvester could be designed from literally all kinds of material, offering broad choices for cost-effective and environment-adaptable fabrications. “You could image harvesters made of one kind of material for rainforest environments, and another for more arid regions.”

And since humidity is ever-present, the harvester would run 24/7, rain or shine, at night and whether or not the wind blows, which solves one of the major problems of technologies like wind or solar, which only work under certain conditions.

Finally, because air humidity diffuses in three-dimensional space and the thickness of the Air-gen device is only a fraction of the width of a human hair, many thousands of them can be stacked on top of each other, efficiently scaling up the amount of energy without increasing the footprint of the device. Such an Air-gen device would be capable of delivering kilowatt-level power for general electrical utility usage.

“Imagine a future world in which clean electricity is available anywhere you go,” says Yao. “The generic Air-gen effect means that this future world can become a reality.”

Reference: “Generic Air-gen Effect in Nanoporous Materials for Sustainable Energy Harvesting from Air Humidity” by Xiaomeng Liu, Hongyan Gao, Lu Sun and Jun Yao, 5 May 2023, Advanced Materials.
DOI: 10.1002/adma.202300748

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, Sony Group, Link Foundation, and the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) at UMass Amherst, which combines deep and interdisciplinary expertise from 29 departments on the UMass Amherst campus to translate fundamental research into innovations that benefit human health and well-being.

10 Comments on "Clean Energy 24/7: Engineers Use Nanotechnology To Harvest Electricity “From Thin Air”"

  1. Clyde Spencer | May 24, 2023 at 10:53 am | Reply

    What happens to the water molecules that enter the porous layer? Is it also a way to extract water from the air for drinking and agriculture?

  2. Clyde Spencer | May 24, 2023 at 10:56 am | Reply

    I think that they need to be mindful of the vertical voltage gradient that is always present because of the ionosphere, and potential disruption of their ‘water batteries’ during electrical storms.

  3. And how MUCH power does this extract say per square inch compared to say solar? In other words, is this realistic or is it just a pipe dream? Power generation has to be affordable, durable and sized to fit. Building my house siding and interior walls to generate electricity sounds great in theory unless an entire house made out of the stuff generates a grand total of 10w per hour or something similarly unusable. What about waste material making this stuff? I don’t see any really useful information in the article. Somehow, I have the nagging suspicion that in reality, it’s about as economically viable as Dark Energy made from Dark Matter!

  4. Isn’t that what tesla was doing

  5. Fixed gravity for you. | May 25, 2023 at 4:04 am | Reply

    “This harvester would be made from a thin layer of material filled with nanopores smaller than 100 nm that would let water molecules pass from the upper to the lower part of the material.”

    So it’s gravity-driven. Thermodynamics and gravity do not mix. Probably the same with thermodynamics and electrodynamics. Gosh, it’s almost as if a “quantum thermodynamics” and a “quantum gravity” are needed.

    • This sounds almost too good to be true. And, I can’t imagine that this can work without airflow. I mean, once all the atmospheric water molecules near the pores have deposited their loose electrons, how will the next batch of charge-carrying water molecules get into position to deposit theirs?

      I mean nothing is for free, and there is a cost to bring in the next rounds of charge-carrying H2O molecules.

      Seems like this should rely upon a pressure gradient (wind).

      Am also wondering about the potential for self repelling electrical fields and ionic gradients building up thus impeding further charge deposition..

  6. Just use the tech from old buildings. Why all this garbage? Liquid mercury in a ball with copper wire running from it in a symmetric facility can harvest all the ether you want. Just start the drawl above 6′ . Let me guess, you use wood in your fireplace too?! Lol . Just remember pure elements. Ether. Symmetry. . . If done perfect you can Bluetooth it even without the copper wire hard connect. – all that old strange decor in pointy matching sets… Strange pointy symmetric architecture.. it was a function.. not a vanity

  7. I have no knowledge of how this theory works. I just wonder if this was to become a reality are there possible consequences? If used in a massive scale, would it change something?

  8. It appears that the upper chamber of the device would require a constant replenishment of water molecules (humidity), meaning it could not be sealed. Otherwise, (if sealed) the device would deplete the available water molecules in the upper chamber. Also, wouldn’t its performance vary based on the density of humidity feeding it? What would be the peak transfer rate of the charge being transferred to the lower chamber (which speaks to the efficiency of the pores’ ability to transfer the charge)?

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