Electricity from nothing

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Electricity from nothing
Electricity from nothing

“We are literally producing electricity from nothing,” is what research director Jun Yao of the University of Massachusetts Amherst says.

While this is not entirely true, it must be acknowledged that the Air-Gen they have just developed (and published in Nature) is quite close to achieving something similar.

What is true is that this device can produce electricity from nothing, just by having air around it.

Electricity from nothing: the key is in the humidity

That’s right, the key to Air-Gen is in the moisture and “protein nanowires” of Geobacter sulfurreducens which, at only 7 micrometers thick, can absorb water vapor in the atmosphere and generate a continuous electrical current conducted between two electrodes.

Geobacter?

In 1987, Derek Lovley encountered a very rare bacterium on the banks of the Potomac River. The Geobacter metallireducens was able to “breathe iron”. And as strange as it sounds, the truth is that these bacteria are capable of “oxidizing organic compounds and metals” to make them environmentally benign. But that was just the beginning. Geobacters have proven useful in cleaning up polluted aquifers or conducting electricity.

Geobacter metallireducens: the bacterium that produces electricity from nothing
Geobacter metallireducens: the bacterium that produces electricity from nothing

For years, scientists have been trying to find ways to exploit these kinds of features, and now a team from the University of Massachusetts Amherst has just unveiled a device that uses them to create energy from ambient moisture.

An accidental discovery

Like most discoveries, this one was also made by accident when Yao noticed that the devices he was working with apparently conducted electricity by themselves. In fact, Yao is not very clear on how all this works.

In his work he explains that the electrical charge is probably created by a moisture gradient that causes a diffusion of protons in the nanowire material, but they have to keep studying this surprising finding.

But this is not a miracle

The Air-gen produces a sustained voltage of about 0.5 volts with a current density of about 17 microamps per square centimeter. Which in technical terms we would call: “little”. However, the team believes that connecting multiple devices could generate enough power to charge smartphone-sized devices.

There is, however, a very delicate part to this whole process, which has to do with the ability to be able to produce “protein nanowires” industrially. In fact, this has been the most difficult part of the entire process, delaying this discovery by decades. In other words, this is the fundamental challenge and the viability of these devices will depend on their ability to produce the nanowire material.

SpaceX begins the era of space traveling
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So, it seems that there is still at least another decade left for this new way of producing energy to come to light completely, and hopefully if it does, it does not disappear “mysteriously” like so many other inventions that could already have solved the energy problems of humanity.

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