'Electricity out of essentially nothing': Invention creates power from falling snow




TORONTO - Scientists from University of California, Los Angeles and McMaster University have invented a nanogenerator that creates electricity from falling snow.

Most Canadians have already seen a mini-version of this, McMaster Prof. Ravi Selvaganapathy told CTV’s Your Morning. “We find that we often get shocked in the winter when it’s dry when we come in into contact with a conductive surface like a doorknob.”

The thin device works by harnessing static electricity: positively-charged, falling snow collides with the negatively-charged silicone device, which produces a charge that’s captured by an electrode.

“You separate the charges and create electricity out of essentially nothing,” Richard Kaner, who holds UCLA’s Dr. Myung Ki Hong Endowed Chair in Materials Innovation, said in a press release.

“The device can work in remote areas because it provides its own power and does not need batteries,” he said, explaining that the device was 3D printed, flexible and inexpensive to make because of the low cost of silicone.

“It’s also going to be useful in places like Canada where we get a lot of snow. We can extract energy from the environment,” Selvaganapathy added.

The team, which also included scientists from the University of Toronto, published their findings in Nano Energy journal last year, but a few weeks ago, they revealed the device’s more practical uses.

About 30 per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by snow each winter, which can significantly limit the energy generated by solar panels.

So the team thought: why not simply harness electricity from the snow whenever the solar panels were covered?

Integrating their device into solar panel arrays could produce a continuous power supply whenever it snows, study co-author and UCLA assistant researcher Maher El-Kady explained.

The device also serves as a weather-monitoring station by recording how much snow is falling and from where; as well as the direction and speed of the wind.

The team said they also want to incorporate their device into weather sensors to help them better acquire and transmit electronic signals. They said several Toronto-based companies -- which they couldn’t name -- have expressed interest in partnering with them.

Selvaganapathy said the device would hop on the trend of “sensors being incorporated into what we wear, into our homes in order to monitor a lot of the things that are important to us”

But the device’s arguably larger potential use is being integrated into technology to monitor athletes and their performances during winter sports, such as hiking, skiing and cross-country skiing.

Up to now, the movement patterns used during cross-country skiing couldn’t be detected by a smart watch, but this device may be able to.

Scientists such as Kaner believe the technology could usher in a new era of self-monitoring devices to assess an athlete’s performance while they’re running, walking or jumping.

The device is simply a proof of concept and the next step would be figuring out how to generate more electricity and integrate it into all of these potential devices, Selvaganapathy said.



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