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A team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has figured out a way to create electricity out of thin air.
Of course, the technology is a bit more complicated than that. Specifically, scientists have developed a new device that uses a natural protein that can produce energy from moisture in the air.
But despite those additional details, electrical engineer and research lead Jun Yao wasn’t afraid to claim that the team is “literally making electricity out of thin air.” The team’s research was first published today in the journal Nature.
The device itself is called an “Air-gen” or an air-powered generator. And it works by using electrically conductive protein-based nanowire produced by a microbe called Geobacter. By connecting electrodes to these nanowires, the device can generate a current from the water vapor in the atmosphere.
As you might expect, the team is already looking ahead to potential applications. The tech itself is low-cost, completely renewable and non-polluting. And unlike other sustainable energy sources, the Air-gen doesn’t need sunlight or wind — and it could even work indoors.
The technology, of course, is going to need development and refinement before it can produce large amounts of electricity in scale. But the researchers suggest that commercial electronic uses could be a stepping stone toward that goal.
Currently, the Air-gen can produce enough electricity for small electronic devices. Thanks to the relatively small form factor of the technology, they see the next logical step as a type of “patch” that could power wearables such as smartwatches and fitness trackers.
In the future, they hope the technology could be implemented in smartphones. That would, theoretically, completely eliminate the need for periodic charging.
As with any new energy or battery technology, the device has a lot of potential. But before you get too excited, keep in mind that commercial applications for the device are still a long way off.
Yao and his team, who have created other protein nanowire devices, do have big plans for the future, however.
“This is just the beginning of a new era of protein-based electronic devices,” Yao said.