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January 30, 2014

Using Humidity Fluctuations to Generate Energy



If there's one thing we know for sure, it is the fossil fuels available on this planet are a finite resource. This fact has forced many researchers to come up with alternative energy solutions before we run out. Additionally, fossil fuels are making many of the megalopolis cities popping up around the world unbearable, because of the pollution they produce. So whenever researchers come up with a new idea for generating energy with readily available resources, it is worth looking into. The Wyss (pronounced Vees) Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has devised a new way for generating electricity by using bacteria to harness the energy of evaporating water.

The Wyss Institute "uses Nature's design principles to develop bio-inspired materials and devices that will transform medicine and create a more sustainable world by crossing disciplinary and institutional barriers to engage in high-risk research that leads to transformative technological breakthroughs." With that impressive goal it is no wonder the researchers at the institute came up with this concept.

The prototype generator uses a sheet of rubber coated with spores on one side, which makes it bend when there is no moisture or dries out, and straightens out when the humidity level increases. If you are asking how is a piece of rubber that keeps bending and straightening going to generate electricity, here comes the explanation.

The back and forth movement generated by the spore-coated sheets can act as actuators capable of driving movement, which in turn can be used to generate electricity. Just like the flow of water is able to turn turbines in hydroelectric generator, this continual bending and straightening can in supply the motion need to run a generator.

"If this technology is developed fully, it has a very promising endgame," said Ozgur Sahin, Ph.D., who led the study, first at Harvard's Rowland Institute, later at the Wyss Institute, and most recently at Columbia University, where he's now an associate professor of biological sciences and physics.

As with all things new and ingenious, it requires collaboration with equally brilliant individuals and this case is no exception. Sahin collaborated with Wyss Institute Core Faculty member L. Mahadevan, Ph.D., who is also the Lola England de Valpine professor of applied mathematics, organismic and evolutionary biology, and physics at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, and Adam Driks,Ph.D., a professor of microbiology and immunology at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Mr. Sahin explains water evaporation is the largest power source in nature and because the way nature performs this task is very subtle, "we don't see it," which is why no one, until now, has had the ingenuity to tap this energy for generating electricity.

The potential for this technology is huge, and  unlike technology that requires wind or the sun, this solution can work day or night because humidity levels are always fluctuating.




Edited by Ryan Sartor

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