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New Hope for Clean Energy Breakthroughs Mixes with a Dose of Disappointment

Neil Strother
Mar 04, 2020

Fuel Cell 2

I can’t resist save-the-planet headlines that scream about breakthroughs right under our noses. For example, “New Device Can Generate Renewable Energy ‘Out of Thin Air,’” caught my eye recently, and so have a couple other stories worth exploring.

Out of Thin Air

First, out of thin air. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst say they have found a way to generate continuous electric power from naturally occurring humidity in the air. Their work, first noted in a recent Nature article, centers on a device called Air-gen capable of producing a sustained voltage of about 0.5 V across a 7-micrometer-thick film, with a current density of about 17 microamperes per square centimeter. In more practical terms, the researchers say 17 Air-gen devices linked can generate enough electricity to power a cellphone. Although the device requires humidity, it can reportedly work in a place as dry as the Sahara Desert.

“We are literally making electricity out of thin air,” said Jun Yao, one of the electrical engineers working on the project, according to a university release. The Air-gen came about through the collaborative efforts of Yao and Derek Lovley, a microbiologist who more than 15 years ago discovered a microbe called Geobacter in the mud of the Potomac River. Lovley concluded the microbe could produce protein nanowires that conduct electricity. Combining his knowledge with the skills of Yao and other team members led to the Air-gen.

Fusion Dreams

An unrelated story from the Wall Street Journal screamed: "Fusion Startups Step in to Realize Decades-Old Clean Power Dream." It turns out that two dozen startup companies have been quietly chasing the long-held dream of squeezing together atoms to generate clean electricity.

Fusion is the same process that powers the sun and hydrogen bombs—a reaction in which two hydrogen atoms combine, or fuse, to form an atom of helium; in this process, some of the mass of the hydrogen is converted to energy. The good news is that the process generates no greenhouse emissions and limited radioactivity. But there is a catch: As the atoms resist each other, the need to overcome that resistance takes immense strength in the form of large and incredibly expensive reactors. As the Wall Street Journal story says, advances in computing, precision machinery, and synthetic materials have allowed scientists to design reactors at a fraction of the size and cost of previous versions. With lower price tags, fusion is within reach of private investors, who are enabling venture companies to grow.

Back to Earth

For a dose of market reality, another story’s headline brought me back down to earth: "Google Shuts Down Its Moonshot Wind Energy Unit Makani." Google parent Alphabet Inc. is closing its subsidiary Makani Technologies, which had been working on wind energy projects. The move is part of Alphabet’s efforts to rein in spending on experimental technology in favor of its core internet business. Makani was started in 2006 with the goal of making kites that could harness wind power and in an attempt to replace more expensive turbines. Google acquired the startup in 2013, placing Makani inside its X Development lab with other moonshot concepts such as self-driving cars.

Despite the Makani shutdown, there are reasons to be hopeful about new technology breakthroughs for clean and plentiful energy sources, whether from fusion or thin air. These efforts dovetail with our vision of the energy sector, which is in the midst of a major transformation, moving from traditional solutions to a dynamic, clean, and intelligent Energy Cloud.