Newly created material can generate clean electricity from the air around it

Researchers recently developed a material that can produce electricity almost continuously using only the surrounding air, potentially laying the foundation for a brand-new, nearly limitless source of sustainable, renewable energy. By doing this and building on their earlier discoveries, they now assert that practically any surface may be capable of being converted into a generator by imitating the electrical characteristics of storm clouds.

An innovative “air generator” (Air-gen) film that relies on minuscule holes less than 100 nanometers across—less than a thousandth the breadth of a single human hair—has been developed by engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, claims a new study. The extraordinarily small sizes of the holes rely on what’s known as a “mean free path,” which is the distance a single molecule can travel before colliding with another molecule of the same substance. The mean free route of airborne water molecules, which are present everywhere, is around 100 nm. Water molecules directly contact an upper and then a lower chamber in the Air-gen material when moist air travels through the tiny holes. A charge imbalance, or electricity, is produced as a result.

The same physics is at work in lightning discharges caused by storm clouds. Although the UMass Amherst team’s invention only produces a tiny portion of the 300 million volts that a lightning bolt is anticipated to produce, its several hundred millivolts of continuous energy are immensely encouraging for scalability and everyday use. This is especially true when you consider that air humidity can diffuse in three-dimensional space. Theoretically, the device can be scaled up without growing in size by stacking thousands of Air-gen layers on top of one another. The researchers claim that such a product might provide kilowatts of power for everyday use.

The team predicts that one day, Air-gen technology will be far more space-efficient than other renewable energy sources like solar and wind energy. In contrast to something as visibly obvious as a solar farm or wind turbine, the material may be fashioned into a multitude of form factors to blend into an environment.

“Imagine a future world in which clean electricity is available anywhere you go. The generic Air-gen effect means that this future world can become a reality,” Jun Yao, the paper’s senior author, said in a statement.

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