Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst 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 in
the future of medicine.
As reported today in Nature, the laboratories of electrical engineer Jun
Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley at UMass Amherst have created a
device they call an âAir-gen.â or air-powered generator, 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.
âWe are literally making electricity out of thin air,â says Yao. âThe
Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7.â Lovely, who has advanced
sustainable biology-based electronic materials over three decades, adds,
âItâs the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires
The Air-gen discovery reflects an unusual interdisciplinary
collaboration, they say. Lovley discovered the Geobacter microbe in the
mud of the Potomac River more than 30 years ago. His lab later
discovered its ability to produce electrically conductive protein
nanowires. Before coming to UMass Amherst, Yao had worked for years at
Harvard University, where he engineered electronic devices with silicon
nanowires. They joined forces to see if useful electronic devices could
be made with the protein nanowires harvested from Geobacter.
Xiaomeng Liu, a Ph.D. student in Yaoâs lab, was developing sensor
devices when he noticed something unexpected. He recalls, âI saw that
when the nanowires were contacted with electrodes in a specific way the
devices generated a current. I found that that exposure to atmospheric
humidity was essential and that protein nanowires adsorbed water,
producing a voltage gradient across the device.â
In addition to the Air-gen, Yaoâs laboratory has developed several other
applications with the protein nanowires. âThis is just the beginning of
new era of protein-based electronic devicesâ said Yao.
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