Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed a device that uses a natural protein to generate electricity from air humidity, a new technology that, as published in the journal ‘Nature’, could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change and medicine.
The laboratories of electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley at UMass Amherst have created a device called a ‘Air generator’ or air-powered generator, with nanowires of electrically conductive proteins produced by the Geobacter microbe.
The call ‘Air-gen’ connects electrodes to protein nanowires in such a way that electric current is generated from water vapor naturally present in the atmosphere. “We are literally producing electricity from nowhere,” Yao notes.
The ‘Air-gen’ generates clean energy 24/7 ”. Lovley, who has advanced in electronic materials based on sustainable biology for three decades, adds: “It is the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires so far.”
It even works indoors
The new technology developed in Yao’s laboratory is non-polluting, renewable and low cost. It can generate energy even in areas with extremely low humidity, such as the Sahara desert.
It has significant advantages over other forms of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, Lovley says, because unlike these other sources of renewable energy, the ‘Air-gen’ does not require sunlight or wind, and “even works indoors”.
The researchers explain that the device only requires a thin film of protein nanowires less than 10 microns thick. The bottom of the film rests on an electrode, while a smaller electrode than covers only a part of the nanowire film is on the top.
The film absorbs water vapor from the atmosphere. A combination of the electrical conductivity and surface chemistry of protein nanowires, along with the fine pores between the nanowires within the film, establishes the conditions that generate an electric current between the two electrodes.
Large scale systems
The researchers say that the current generation of ‘Air-gen’ devices can power small electronic devices and hope to bring the invention to commercial scale soon.
The next steps they plan include the development of a small “Patch” ‘Air-gen’ It can power electronic portable devices such as health and fitness monitors and smart watches, which would eliminate the requirement of traditional batteries. They also hope to develop ‘Air-gen’ to apply to cell phones to eliminate periodic charging.
“The ultimate goal is to make large-scale systems. For example, technology could be incorporated into wall paint that could help power your home, ” explains Yao. Or, we could develop autonomous air-powered generators that supply electricity from the grid. Once we reach an industrial scale for wire production, I hope we can make great systems that contribute significantly to sustainable energy production. ”.
Continuing to advance the practical biological capabilities of Geobacter, Lovley’s laboratory recently developed a new microbial strain to produce protein nanowires faster and more economically.
“We convert‘ E. coli ’in a protein nanowire factory,” he explains. With this new scalable process, the supply of protein nanowires will no longer be a bottleneck to develop these applications. ”
The discovery of ‘Air-gen’ reflects an unusual interdisciplinary collaboration, they say. Lovley discovered the ‘Geobacter’ microbe in the mud of the Potomac River over 30 years ago. Later, his laboratory discovered its ability to produce nanowires of electrically conductive proteins.
Before arriving at UMass Amherst, Yao had worked for years at Harvard University, where he designed electronic devices with silicon nanowires. They joined together to see if useful electronic devices could be manufactured with Geobacter harvested protein nanowires.
Xiaomeng Liu, a student in Yao’s laboratory, was developing sensor devices when he noticed something unexpected. “I saw that when the nanowires made contact with the electrodes in a specific way, the devices generated a current,” he recalls. I discovered that exposure to atmospheric moisture was essential and that protein nanowires adsorbed water, producing a voltage gradient in the device ”. Ep