Generating Electricity From Snowfall

Triboelectric generator
Credit for image: Pixabay, [1]

It is interesting to know that researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have come up with an innovative device that can generate electricity from the snow we are all familiar with. Nothing of this sort has ever been created. It is the first ever! Regardless of the technicalities involved in the development, the device you’re getting is not the sophisticated type. It is very flexible and looks much like your sheet of plastic. It is small and also inexpensive, making it equipment that will be accessible to all.

This amazing device is able to generate its own power. It doesn’t require the use of batteries, as stated by Richard Kaner, a senior author who holds the Endowed Chair in Materials Innovation of UCLA’s Dr. Myung Ki Hong. You can consider this device a smart one. It is able to let you know the direction in which the snow is falling and how much of it is falling. It also lets you know the speed and the direction of the wind.

The scientists refer to this as a snow-driven snow TENG or triboelectric nanogenerator. A triboelectric Nanogenerator is a device which uses friction to generate charge and produces energy from the exchange of electrons.

Scientifically, static electricity results from two components that interact with each other. One is a material that gives up electrons and another is a material that takes up electrons. This statement is credited to Kaner, an eminent professor of biochemistry and chemistry, material science and engineering. He is also a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. According to Kaner, electricity is generated virtually out of nothing by separating the charges.

Snow gives up electrons because it carries a positive charge. Silicone is synthetic, a material similar to a rubber substance. It is made up of silicon as well as oxygen atoms together with hydrogen, carbon and other elements. It is important to note that silicone is negatively charged. Snow being positively charged when in contact with the surface area of silicone, a negatively charged particle as it falls, generates a charge that is captured by the device to produce electricity.

The co-author Mahar El-Kady, a postdoctoral researcher of biochemistry and chemistry at UCLA, declares that since snow is already positively charged, it is appropriate to bring another opposite charge close to it and extract the charge to produce electricity.

In addition, he stated that the performance of this device is not in any way determined by snow even though it will readily give up its electrons. It is dependent on the efficiency of the negatively charged material, silicone, to capture these electrons. The team found that after trying out an array of materials that includes the likes of Teflon and aluminum foils, they came up with silicone as the best that generates more charges than all others.

During every winter, about 30% of the earth is covered by snow. At this period, solar panels are known to not function well, said, El-Kady. This is probably because as the amount of falling snow increases, this cuts down the rate of sunlight that gets to the solar array thus reducing the output of the panel. This makes them to be less effective. This newly found device can be incorporated into solar panels to make available a continuous power supply when snow falls.

With this device, winter sports like skiing can be observed to accurately assess and improve the performance of an athlete when walking, jumping or running. This also has the ability to detect the major movement patterns used in cross-country skiing that cannot be detected with a smart watch.

It can bring about a new group of self-powered wearable tools for monitoring athletes including their performance.

Signals can also be sent to know whether an individual is in motion. It will be able to say whether an individual is jumping, walking, marching or running as the case applies.

The researchers used 3-D printing to develop the design of this device. The resulting device has a silicone layer and an electrode which captures the charge to facilitate electricity generation.

It is the team’s believe that the device can be made at a not-expensive cost considering the availability of silicone and how easy it is to come up with fabricating it, Kaner, has said. Silicone is commonly used in the industry. They are found in electrical wire insulation, lubricants and biomedical implants. This material now also has a great potential in energy harvesting.

Further information:

[1] Abdelsalam Ahmed et al. All printable snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator, Nano Energy (2019). DOI: 10.1016/j.nanoen.2019.03.032

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