by Kunaal Venugopal
Electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley at the University of Massachusetts Amherst claim to have created a device that can generate energy “out of thin air.” This device, which they call an “Air-gen,” works with electrically conductive nanowires produced by the microbe Geobacter. Geobacter is useful in bioremediation, “the treatment of pollutants or waste by the use of microorganisms that break down undesirable substances” (Merriam-Webster). The nanowires connect to electrodes in such a way that they are able to generate electrical current from the inherently present water vapor in the atmosphere. The scientists expect to bring their invention to commercial scale in the near future, with an eventual goal of integrating “large systems that will make a major contribution to sustainable energy production.”
Lovley and Yao are not unversed in the applications of nanowires. Indeed, it was Lovley who discovered the Geobacter microbe over 30 years ago in the Potomac River, and eventually its capability to produce the electrically conductive wires credited with the creation of the “Air-gen.” Yao had previously used silicon nanowires to engineer electronic devices at Harvard University. The two teamed up to see if they could implement their prior research into creating useful electronic devices, such as their “Air-gen.”
Ultimately, it is uncertain whether or not Yao and Lovley’s invention can truly provide an infinite source of renewable energy. The problem with previous renditions of moisture-based energy-producing technologies was the ephemeral burst of power that could not effectively power many devices, but the “Air-gen” has addressed this issue. It’s unknown whether or not this technology could completely replace fossil fuels’ role in the world, but its potential is especially promising.