Science

Air-gen, a device that generates electricity from the air

It could have numerous applications, including helping to combat climate change, or powering medical devices. It is a new technology, called Air-gen, which generates electricity from the air

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(image: UMass Amherst / Yao and Lovley labs)

Use a natural protein to create electricity from the air. Or rather from the humidity present in the atmosphere. This is the new technology just developed by researchers from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (UMass), according to to which their device, called Air-gen (air generator), could have numerous and important implications in the world of medicine, renewable energy and in the fight against climate change . The study has just been published on the pages of Nature .

But what does it consist of? Air-gen, explain the researchers coordinated by the engineer Jun Yao and the microbiologist Derek Lovley , is a non-polluting, renewable and economic technology. In essence, the device connects the electrodes to protein nanowires , filaments that have a conductivity and which are produced by a species of proteobacteria called Geobacter sulfurreducens , so that the electric current is generated by the water vapor naturally present in the atmosphere. “We are literally producing electricity from nothing” , explains co-author Yao, pointing out that unlike other forms of renewable energy , such as wind and solar, Air-gen does not require sunlight or wind, and also works in areas with extremely low humidity , as in the Sahara desert, and even “even indoors” , specifies the expert.

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(image: UMass Amherst / Yao and Lovley labs)

The device Air-gen is composed of a thin biofilm of protein filaments of thickness less than 10 micron. The lower part of the film rests on a electrode , while above there is another smaller electrode which only covers a part of the protein nanowire film. The bacterial biofilm , explain the researchers, absorbs the water vapor from the atmosphere and thanks to a combination of factors, such as the electrical conductivity of protein nanowires, the right conditions are established to generate a electric current between the two electrodes. “I saw that when the nanowires were put in contact with the electrodes in a specific way, the device generated a current” , comments Yao. “I discovered that exposure to atmospheric humidity was essential and that protein nanowires absorbed water, producing a voltage gradient across the device.”

(photo: UMass Amherst / Yao and Lovley labs)

This, the researchers hope, would be only the beginning of a new era in which electronic devices can be based on protein nanowires. For now, in fact, Air-gen has proven itself capable of powering only small electronic devices. The next step will be to test the new device as a patch, thus able to power wearable electronic devices and smart watches, thus eliminating the use of traditional batteries. “The ultimate goal is to build large-scale systems”, concludes Yao. To do this, the researchers transformed Escherichia coli into a real factory capable of producing in large quantities and much more rapidly the protein nanowires . “Once industrial scales for the production of protein nanowires are reached, we will be able to create large systems to offer an important contribution to the production of sustainable energy”.

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