Out of Thin Air

New Technology Uses Protein to Create Electricity from Moisture in the Air
Artists image of new UMass Amherst technology that generates energy from moisture in the air.

Electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley 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 the future of medicine.

Jun Yao

Yao and Lovley’s “Air-gen,” or air-powered generator, is a device 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. Their results have been reported in Nature.

Lovley, who has advanced sustainable biology-based electronic materials over three decades, says the technology has significant advantages over other forms of renewable energy because it does not require sunlight or wind, and it even works indoors. “It’s the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires yet,” he adds.

Derek Lovley

The current generation of Air-gen devices are able to power small electronics; Lovley and Yao expect to bring the invention to commercial scale soon. Their plan includes 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.

“The ultimate goal is to make large-scale systems,” says Yao. “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.”

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Lovley, Yao Receive Armstrong Fund for Science

John and Elizabeth Armstrong

Jun Yao and Derek Lovley were chosen to receive the 2020 Armstrong Fund Award for their work on air-gen technology. The $40,000 grant supports scaling up of the invention for practical applications. UMass Amherst 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.

Yao and Lovley are planning 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.
“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 technology for attracting extramural investment and commercialization potential,” says Yao.