In a stroke of serendipity, researchers from the University of Massachusetts have stumbled upon a way to generate electricity out of humid air.

Professor Jun Yao and his team were initially developing a device that would function as air humidity sensor using an array of microscopic tubes, with each of these nanowires having a diameter smaller than one-thousandth of a human hair. When a student member forgot to turn on the device, the team found that the device nevertheless generated a small electric charge.

Water molecules bumped around as they passed through the narrow nanowires, and this movement would cause the tubes to have different charges. This created a battery-like effect. “You have a positive pull and a negative pull, and when you connect them the charge is going to flow,” Yao said.

With this discovery, the team then replaced the nanowires with nanopores—millions of tiny holes punched through a material—and was able to generate about one microwatt from their device that was the size of a thumbnail. Yao said the device could be stacked multiple layers vertically to increase the power.

But in terms of practical applications and scalability, other scientists and pundits have expressed their doubts. Even Yao’s team recognizes the years required to optimize and mass-produce a prototype, although they envision a future where electricity derived from the air, or “hygroelectricity,” could provide a constant and sustainable power source for buildings and homes without the need for additional infrastructure.

The team published their paper in May and is publicly available for reading at the Wiley Online Library.

Source: The Guardian

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