Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US have developed a device that uses a natural protein to create electricity from moisture in the air.
The findings published in the journal Nature could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change and in the future of medicine.
The researchers used electrically conductive protein nanowires produced by the microbe Geobacter to create the device called “Air-gen” or air-powered generator.
The Air-gen connects electrodes to the protein nanowires in such a way that electrical current is generated from the water vapour naturally present in the atmosphere.
“We are literally making electricity out of thin air,” said electrical engineer Jun Yao.
“The Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7.”
The new technology developed in Yao”s lab is non-polluting, renewable and low-cost. It can generate power even in areas with extremely low humidity such as the Sahara Desert, said the study.
It has significant advantages over other forms of renewable energy including solar and wind, because unlike these other renewable energy sources, the Air-gen does not require sunlight or wind, and “it even works indoors”, said microbiologist Derek Lovley.
The Air-gen device requires only a thin film of protein nanowires less than 10 microns thick, the researchers explained.
The bottom of the film rests on an electrode, while a smaller electrode that covers only part of the nanowire film sits on top.
The film adsorbs water vapour from the atmosphere. A combination of the electrical conductivity and surface chemistry of the protein nanowires, coupled with the fine pores between the nanowires within the film, establishes the conditions that generate an electrical current between the two electrodes.
The researchers said that the current generation of Air-gen devices are able to power small electronics, and they expect to bring the invention to commercial scale soon.