A team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst has developed a device that uses a natural protein to create electricity from the humidity present air, a new technology which, as they explain in the study “Power generation from ambient humidity using protein nanowires “, published in Nature, could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change and the future of medicine.
Electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley of UMass Amherst have in fact created, along with their team, a device called “Air-gen” with electrically conductive protein nanowires produced by the microbe Geobacter. The Air-gen connects electrodes to the protein nanowires in such a way that electrical current is generated from the water vapor naturally present in the atmosphere.
Yao points out that “We are literally making electricity out of thin air, ” Lovley, who has studied sustainable biology-based electronic materials over three decades, adds, “It’s the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires yet.”
The new technology is non-polluting, renewable and economic. It can also produce energy in areas with extremely low humidity, such as the Sahara desert. It has significant advantages compared to other forms of renewable energy – including solar and wind – because, unlike these other renewable energy sources, Air-gen does not require sunlight or wind energy and also works indoors.
The authors of the study – which also include Hongyan Gao, Joy Ward, Xiaorong Liu, Bing Yin, Tianda Fu, Jianhan Chen, Derek R. Lovley – explain that the Air-gen device requires only a thin film of protein, less than 10 microns. The lower part of the film rests on an electrode, while a smaller electrode covering only part of the nanowire film is located on top. The film absorbs water vapor from the atmosphere. A combination of electrical and chemical surface conductivity of protein nanowires, coupled with the fine pores between the nanowires within the film, establishes the conditions that generate an electric current between the two electrodes.
UMass Amherst assert that the current generation of Air-gen devices is capable of powering small electronic components and think that the applications of the invention will soon be able to be marketed. Their next steps are to develop a small Air-gen patch capable of powering wearable electronic devices such as health and fitness monitors and smart watches, which would eliminate the need for traditional batteries, but the researchers also hope to develop Air-gens to eliminate the periodic recharge of mobile phones.
It was Xiaomeng Liu, a student from Yao’s lab who was developing sensor devices, who noticed something unexpected and remembers: “I saw that when the nanowires were brought into contact with the electrodes in a specific way, the devices generated a current. I found that exposure to atmospheric humidity was essential and that protein nanowires absorbed water, producing a voltage gradient across the device.”
In addition to Air-gen, Yao’s laboratory has developed many other applications with protein nanowires and Yao concludes: “This is only the beginning of the new era of protein-based electronic devices.”
Source: Science Daily