In May, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst announced in a research paper that they had found a way to successfully generate a small, continuous electrical current from humid air.
The project seems like a mad science experiment gone right. But the study’s lead author, Professor Jun Yao, told the Guardian, “To be frank, it was an accident. We were actually interested in making a simple sensor for humidity in the air. But for whatever reason, the student who was working on that forgot to plug in the power.”
After the research team realized the student’s mistake, they could see that the array of microscopic tubes, one-thousandth the diameter of a human hair, produced an electrical signal without power.
Since the original test was conducted, the researchers developed a methodology to test nanopores, which are just materials with many small holes instead of nanowires.
The cumulative device they’ve developed is only the size of a thumbnail with one-fifth the width of a human hair. If it works, it has the potential to generate a single microwatt of power, which is just enough to light a single pixel on an LED screen.
Lighting a single pixel may not seem like an impressive feat, but it does lay the groundwork for pivotal research that would allow scientists to essentially make energy from the air.
“Even though a thin sheet of the device gives out a very tiny amount of electricity or power, in principle, we can stack multiple layers in vertical space to increase the power,” Yao explained to the Guardian.
Possible applications for the system, termed “hygroelectric power,” may outnumber other popular renewables like solar and wind. These systems can be placed inside or outside and may someday be used to create construction materials.
It’s important to note that humidity-powered homes will not be a thing of tomorrow — or the day after. Sourcing the materials, performing the research and development, and building the project to scale takes immense amounts of time, resources, and funding.
But in a world where nonrenewable, dirty energy like coal and oil is running out, new alternatives like hygroelectric generators may fill a significant void.
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