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01/03/2018 - MIT Device Generates Electricity From Thin Air

A team at MIT designed a novel way to convert temperature fluctuations into electrical power.

And you thought a potato-powered light bulb was cool.

Most thermoelectric devices require two different-yet-concurrent climate inputs. But the new system takes advantage of changes in ambient temperature.

“We’ve built the first thermal resonator,” Michael Strano, professor of chemical engineering, said in a statement. “It’s something that can sit on a desk and generate energy out of what seems like nothing.”

This discovery, according to the Institution, could enable continuous, years-long operation of remote sensing systems—sans power sources or batteries.

A lamp, for instance, could thrive off of the air. Or a computer or TV, maybe even a smartphone.

“We are surrounded by temperature fluctuations of all different frequencies all of the time,” Strano added. “These are an untapped source of energy.”

MIT’s thermal resonator is not yet ready for prime time. Its power levels so far are “modest,” at best.

Without the need for direct sunlight, though, the device is unaffected by short-term changes in environmental conditions (cloud cover, wind intensity, etc.). It can be located anywhere that’s convenient—even under a solar panel, where the thermal resonator might draw away waste heat, making the sunlight-absorbing technology more efficient.

The full findings were published recently in the journal Nature Communications. Research was conducted by graduate student Anton Cottrill and Strano, with seven other members of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

There’s a reason no one has successfully produced power from temperature cycles: it’s really hard. 

Scientists needed a material optimized for thermal effusivity, which combines properties of thermal conduction (how rapidly heat spreads through a material) and thermal capacity (how much heat can be stored in a material). In most cases, if one is high, the other is low.

So the team made their own thermal effusivity material out of a metal foam (copper or nickel), coated in graphene and infused with octadecane.

Only one side at a time captures heat, which slowly radiates through the device. One half, however, always lags behind, and it’s this perpetual difference that can be harvested and used as a complementary energy source in a hybrid system.

Solar panels dampened by a sandstorm? Thermal resonator to the rescue!

“You’ll have this additional mechanism to give power, even if it’s just enough to send out an emergency message,” Cottrill said.

Researchers hope their system could one day power networks of sensors that monitor conditions at oil and gas drilling fields.

Source:  https://www.geek.com/tech/mit-device-generates-electricity-from-thin-air-1732324/

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