Yao, Lovley Win 2020 Armstrong Fund for Science Award

Graphic image of a thin film of protein nanowires generating electricity from atmospheric humidity.
Graphic image of a thin film of protein nanowires generating electricity from atmospheric humidity.

The campus’s Armstrong Fund for Science has announced its award for 2020 to principal investigator Jun Yao, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Derek Lovley, professor of microbiology – an interdisciplinary team that is developing a device that uses a natural protein to create electricity from moisture in the air. They will receive a two-year, $40,000 grant to support scaling up the invention for practical applications.

The new technology could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change and in medicine, the researchers point out. They call the device an “Air-gen,” or air-powered generator. It uses electrically conductive protein nanowires produced by the microbe Geobacter to connect toelectrodes so electrical current is generated from water vapor.

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

Yao says of the award, “We are honored to receive the Armstrong Fund Award, both as  a recognition of our discovery and the very critical support for us to further develop the technologyfor attracting extramural investment and commercialization potential”

The new technology being 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 a desert, he points out. Lovley says it has significant advantages over other forms of renewable energy including solar and wind because unlike these sources, Air-gen does not require sunlight or wind, and it works indoors.

The researchers’ proposal states that they plan to develop engineering strategies to scale this technology up for practical applications. They plan exploratory research to attract extramural grants from such sources as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and to establish intellectual property for startups and commercialization.

Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement, administers the Armstrong award process. He commended this year’s winners for their success and for meeting one of the award’s key goals, the potential to establish UMass Amherst as an innovator and to attract external funding from agencies such as DARPA, DOE and ONR.

Yao reports that current bench-top Air-gen devices can power small electronics. Next steps that the Armstrong award will support include developing an Air-gen patch to power electronic wearables such as health and fitness monitors and smart watches.

He says the ultimate goal is to make large-scale systems.

Benefactors John and Elizabeth Armstrong established their Fund for Science in 2006 to identify and support promising research directions that do not yet have enough data available for the principals to apply to standard funding channels. Lovley and Yao’s research had earlier support from the UMass Office of Technology Commercialization and Ventures and the College of Natural Sciences.