Electrical Air

A recent scientific study might redefine the phrase “out of thin air.”

Interestingly, this redefinition could complete the cliche’s evolutionary circle. We utter the expression when we encounter something seemingly arising from no clear antecedent as if a magician conjured the subject. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the idea is relatively old. The opposite phrase – “into thin air” – which means disappearing into the ether (and is the title of a fantastic book about Mt. Everest) has been utilized since the 1500s. “Out of thin air” app-air-ently originates by the 1830s. In both senses, “thin air” originally referred to the atmosphere at great heights. At the summit of Everest, just one-third of sea-level oxygen exists. The higher you go, the thinner the air becomes. Thus, something that materializes “out of thin air” came from a zone the people of the 1500s did not well understand. Today, the term is largely tossed around without worrying about what “thin air” actually means.

Now, if scientists tell you they can summon electricity from out of thin air, they’re not wielding sorcery but the literal truth.

Magician, mad scientist, or 21st-century wizard?

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, recently unlocked the ability to generate electricity from the air.

This statement is not as outlandish as it might seem on the surface. We’ve known for many moons that the atmosphere contains unfathomable amounts of electricity. You’ve likely seen the proof dozens or hundreds of times: thunderstorms. Lightning is the grand result of our skies creating electricity. The secret ingredient is water. Molecules of water in clouds form electrical imbalances simply due to their chemistry. In thunderclouds, updrafts and downdrafts move water around violently. In the maelstrom, molecules collide with each other, which sometimes shears off electrons. These tiny particles collect on the descending water, leaving a positively charged cloud top and a negatively charged cloud bottom.

As Paula Abdul taught us, opposites attract. The negative region in the cloud starts to attract a positive charge on the surface of the Earth. When a certain threshold is crossed, the result is a calamitous discharge of lightning. And we all know the symbol for electricity is the lightning bolt, so, in one turn of phrase, the air can create electricity.

Though Benjamin Franklin displayed we can collect electricity from the air with a kite and key, we have never really successfully harnessed the power of the skies in a practical way. The scientists from UMASS might have found a workaround.

The anatomy of a thunderstorm - graphic by NWS

They did not invent a way to snare lightning. Instead, they figured out a way to “make” clouds, utilizing a device they dubbed an “Air-gen.”

The design is rather uncomplicated, though not simple to produce. All one needs is a layer of material and two electrodes. The catch, of course, comes in the sizing. The material must feature tiny holes, 100 nanometers in diameter. For reference, the diameter of human hair clocks in between 80,000 and 100,000 nanometers. When water passes through these holes, the process mimics that of a cloud. Molecules hit the edges, but more charge-toting molecules nail the upper portion of the material than the bottom. So, the upper portion gains more charge than the bottom, which creates an imbalance. This inequality essentially creates a battery, from which the attached electrodes can harvest electricity!

The Air-gen device in its simplest form - photo by Liu et al./UMASS
The Air-gen device in its power-level-over-9,000-form

The simplicity of this design unlocks powerful potential on multiple levels.

First, the hole-ridden layer can be made of nearly any substance, giving it a malleable, modular scalability. It can be created out of abundant materials, no matter the location.

More important, however, is the reliance on water. The need for renewable energy sources only deepens by the year. To date, the most widescale focus of future sources of clean energy leans on solar and wind. Using nuclear fission has fallen out of fashion; cold fusion might one day be a reality, but we do not yet live in that world. And, despite surface water shortages in many spots around the planet, one zone provides an endless sea of potentially reusable H2O: the sky. Humidity is, quite literally, all around us. Even in the desert. Even at night. Even when no wind blows.

The ability to create electricity from the water in the atmosphere could be a massive paradigm shift.

Though exciting, we need to temper our excitement about this technology. Initial studies have produced just fractions of volts, a pittance in a world of power-sucking machinery.

Can this design scale to meaningful levels? Or will its potential vanish into thin air?

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