Nikola Tesla’s immaculate energy vision finally realized?

Scientists have dreamed of creating energy out of thin air for over a century. Nikola Tesla already carried out experiments in this direction in the 1930s. But recently, calls for untainted energy perception have become louder. Moving away from fossil fuels in time to avoid the worst of the climate crisis will be the single greatest collaborative undertaking the world has ever attempted, and the imperative has pushed scientists to dream big. Some of the resulting brainstorming and experimentation sounds ripped from the pages of a science fiction dimestore novel, or like wishful thinking rather than methodology. But scientists have come closer and closer to making the impossible possible: harvesting energy from the air.

In 2021, researchers from the American University of Massachusetts Amherst announced that they had invented a device called Air-gen, short for air-powered generator. The device is able to use a naturally occurring protein to convert moisture in the surrounding air to create electricity. This is done through a film that consists of protein nanowires that originate from the bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens. The team of researchers claimed that this technology “could have interesting implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change and the future of medicine.” The film, which is only a few micrometers thick, has proven to be effective. “We are literally making electricity out of thin air. Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7. It is the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires to date,” explained researcher and paper author Jun Yao.

A year later, in 2022, the EU began funding a new project – called CATCHER – which similarly aims to create energy from air humidity, but in this case through the use of cells made of zirconium oxide, a ceramic material used in all kinds of applications from dental implants to nuclear fuel rods. “Exploring the properties of nanomaterials made from zirconium oxide seven years ago, researchers began to see evidence of hygroelectricity,” the European Commission’s magazine Horizon reported in December. In the last seven years, they have come a long way, but the technology is still very far from scalability and practical application. Currently, “an 8-by-5-centimeter sheet of their material can generate about 0.9 volts in a lab with about 50% humidity,” or about the output of half an AA battery.

Now, just this year, researchers at Monash University in Australia have made another air-to-energy breakthrough. This time the key material is an enzyme called Huc. The enzyme is found in the bacterium Mycobacterium smegmatis, a cousin of the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis and leprosy. Huc is already a powerhouse of air-to-energy conversion, which the bacterium uses to create energy in extreme environments with few other energy sources.

Once extracted, the researchers say the enzyme could be used to power “a variety of small portable electrical devices (…) including biometric sensors, environmental monitors, digital watches and calculators or simple computers.” So far, the various uses of Huc exist more in a thought experiment than a tested hypothesis, but the scientists responsible believe that Huc has the potential for greatness. “”When you supply Huc with more concentrated hydrogen, it produces more electrical current,” said lead author Rhys Grinter. “Which means you can use it in fuel cells to power more complex devices, such as smartwatches or smartphones, more wearable complexes. computers and possibly even a car.”

Projects aimed at creating energy from air are clearly still in their infancy, but it would be hard to overestimate the potential implications if one of these technologies were to become scalable. Creating energy from thin air would solve countless problems related to climate change and other negative environmental externalities associated with energy production. Furthermore, a technology like a bacterial enzyme would theoretically be available anywhere in the world, making the geopolitics of energy production fairer and decentralized. In short, it could reverse the global economy as we know it. One day.

By Haley Zaremba for

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