New green technology from UMass Amherst generates electricity ‘out of thin air’ Renewable device could help mitigate climate change, power medical devices


 

Graphic image of a thin film of protein nanowires generating electricity from atmospheric humidity. UMass Amherst researchers say the device can literally make electricity out of thin air. CREDIT UMass Amherst/Yao and Lovley labs

Abstract:

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed a device that uses a natural protein to create electricity from moisture in the air, a new technology they say could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change and in the future of medicine.

As reported today in Nature, the laboratories of electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley at UMass Amherst have created a device they call an “Air-gen.” or air-powered generator, 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.

“We are literally making electricity out of thin air,” says Yao. “The Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7.” Lovely, who has advanced sustainable biology-based electronic materials over three decades, adds, “It’s the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires yet.”

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. It has significant advantages over other forms of renewable energy including solar and wind, Lovley says, because unlike these other renewable energy sources, the Air-gen does not require sunlight or wind, and “it even works indoors.”

The Air-gen device requires only a thin film of protein nanowires less than 10 microns thick, the researchers explain. 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 vapor 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 say 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.

Next steps they plan include developing a small Air-gen “patch” that can power electronic wearables such as health and fitness monitors and smart watches, which would eliminate the requirement for traditional batteries. They also hope to develop Air-gens to apply to cell phones to eliminate periodic charging.

Yao says, “The ultimate goal is to make large-scale systems. For example, the technology might be incorporated into wall paint that could help power your home.

Or, we may develop stand-alone air-powered generators that supply electricity off the grid. Once we get to an industrial scale for wire production, I fully expect that we can make large systems that will make a major contribution to sustainable energy production.”

Continuing to advance the practical biological capabilities of Geobacter, Lovley’s lab recently developed a new microbial strain to more rapidly and inexpensively mass produce protein nanowires. “We turned E. coli into a protein nanowire factory,” he says. “With this new scalable process, protein nanowire supply will no longer be a bottleneck to developing these applications.”

The Air-gen discovery reflects an unusual interdisciplinary collaboration, they say. Lovley discovered the Geobacter microbe in the mud of the Potomac River more than 30 years ago.

His lab later discovered its ability to produce electrically conductive protein nanowires. Before coming to UMass Amherst, Yao had worked for years at Harvard University, where he engineered electronic devices with silicon nanowires.

They joined forces to see if useful electronic devices could be made with the protein nanowires harvested from Geobacter.

Xiaomeng Liu, a Ph.D. student in Yao’s lab, was developing sensor devices when he noticed something unexpected. He recalls, “I saw that when the nanowires were contacted with electrodes in a specific way the devices generated a current. I found that that exposure to atmospheric humidity was essential and that protein nanowires adsorbed water, producing a voltage gradient across the device.”

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In addition to the Air-gen, Yao’s laboratory has developed several other applications with the protein nanowires. “This is just the beginning of new era of protein-based electronic devices” said Yao.

The research was supported in part from a seed fund through the Office of Technology Commercialization and Ventures at UMass Amherst and research development funds from the campus’s College of Natural Sciences.

Copyright © University of Massachusetts Amherst

From Renewables to Batteries ~ Coatings to Sensors: How Nanotechnology is Helping to Combat Climate Change + Video


3-fivewaysnano

Hamburg, Germany: The Hamburg G20 Summit where 20 of the world’s largest economies following the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris climate pact, will be searching for and talking about ways to combat Climate Change. How can Nanotechnology be a part of the Solution?

1. Lightweight nano-composite materials – Any effort to reduce emissions in vehicles by reducing their weight , in turn, decreasing fuel consumption can have an immediate and significant global impact. It is estimated that a 10% reduction in weight of the vehicle corresponds to a 10% reduction in fuel consumption, leading to a proportionate fall in emissions. In recognition of the above, there is growing interest worldwide in exploring means of achieving weight reduction in automobiles through use of novel materials. For example, use of lighter, stronger, and stiffer nano-composite materials is considered to have the potential to significantly reduce vehicle weight.

 

 

2. Nano-coatings – Nanotechnology coatings are a good short-term way of reducing emissions and and maximizing clean energy production. For example, nano-coatings can be applied to aircraft, which can make aircraft’s smoother, reducing drag and also protect the materials from the special conditions of the environment where they are used (instead of the conventional bulk metals such as steel). Since the amount of CO2 emitted by an aircraft engine is directly related to the amount of fuel burned, CO2 can be reduced by making the airplane lighter. Hydrophobic nano-coatings can also improve the energy produced from solar panels for example.

 

 

3. Nanocatalysts – Nanotechnology is already applied to improve fuel efficiency by incorporation of nanocatalysts. Enercat, a third generation nanocatalyst developed by Energenics, uses the oxygen storing cerium oxide nanoparticles to promote complete fuel combustion, which helps in reducing fuel consumption. Recently, the company has demonstrated fuel savings of 8%–10% on a mixed fleet of diesel vehicles in Italy. Reducing friction and improving wear resistance in engine and drive train components is of vital importance in the automotive sector. Based on the estimates made by a Swedish company Applied Nano Surfaces, reducing friction can lower the fuel consumption by about 2% and result in cutting down CO2 emissions by 500 million tons per year from trucks and other heavy vehicles in Sweden alone.

 

 

4. Nano-structured Materials – Thanks to nanomaterials like silica, many tires will in the future be capable of attaining the best energy rating, the green category. Cars equipped with category A tires consume approximately 7.5% less fuel than those with tires of the minimum standard (category G). Residential and commercial buildings contribute to 11% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Space heating and cooling of residential buildings account for 40% of the total residential energy use. Nanostructured materials, such as aerogels, have the potential to greatly reduce heat transfer through building elements and assist in reducing heating loads placed on air-conditioning/heating systems. Aerogel is a nanoporous super-insulating material with extremely low density; silica aerogel is the lightest solid material known with excellent thermal insulating properties, high temperature stability, very low dielectric constant and high surface area.

 

5. Improved Renewables – Nanotechnology may accelerate the technology behind renewables in various ways:experts are discovering means to apply nanotechnology to photovoltaics, which would produce solar panels with double or triple the output by 2020; wind turbines stand to be improved from high-performance nano-materials like graphene, a nano-engineered one-atom thick layer of mineral graphite that is 100 times stronger than steel. Nanotechnology will enable light and stiff wind blades that spin at lower wind speeds than regular blades;nanotechnology could play a major role in the next generation of batteries. For example, coating the surface of an electrode with nanoparticles increases the surface area, thereby allowing more current to flow between the electrode and the chemicals inside the battery.

 

6. Batteries – Such techniques could increase the efficiency of electric and hybrid vehicles by significantly reducing the weight of the batteries. Nanotechnology is positioned to create significant change across several domains, especially in energy where it may bring large and possibly sudden performance gains to renewable sources and Smart Grids. Nanotech enhancements may also increase battery power by orders of magnitude, allowing intermittent sources such as solar and wind to provide a larger share of overall electricity supply without sacrificing stability.

 

Moreover, superior batteries would complement renewables by storing energy economically, thus offsetting the whole issue of intermittent generation.In a somewhat more distant future, we may see electricity systems apply nanotechnology in transmission lines. Research indicates that it is possible to develop electrical wires using carbon nanotubes that can carry higher loads and transmit without power losses even over hundreds of kilometers. The implications are significant, as it would increase the efficiency of generating power where the source is easiest to harness. Semiconductor devices, transistors, and sensors will benefit from nanotechnology especially in size and speed.

 

7. Nanotech sensors – Sensors could be used for the Smart Grid to detect issues ahead of time, ie, to measure degrading of underground cables or to bring down the price of chemical sensors already available for transformers. Nanotechnology will likely become indispensable for the Smart Grid to fully evolve in the near future. Energy efficiency is a way of managing and restraining the growth of energy consumption. It is one of the easiest and most cost effective ways to combat climate change, improve the competitiveness of businesses, and reduce energy costs for consumers.

Learn More: Video: Can This Carbon Nanomaterial Solve Global Warming

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