Ultra-Thin Battery That Gets Its Energy From Air Moisture Is Under Development

The Straits Times

They say that technology could someday fit the palm of your hand. That might be true sooner than we believe. Just imagine being able to generate electricity by getting moisture from the air surrounding you. And the best part is that you may be able to do this will regular items such as sea salt and a piece of fabric.

The thought of being able to do this is just inspiring and impressive. Hence, this is exactly the goal of a team of researchers hailing from Singapore. They have managed to demonstrate and develop a moisture-driven battery with just a thin layer of fabric, sea salt, carbon ink, and a special kind of water-absorbing gel.

This moisture-driven electricity generation device, or MEG, is about 0.3 millimeters thick. It is built based on the idea that different materials have the ability to generate electricity by simply blending with moisture found in the air. When perfected, this has the potential to go with a wide range of real-world applications. Included on the list would be wearable electronics such as health monitors, electronic skin sensors, and information storage devices.

Devices of this nature have already been developed in the past, but the researchers behind it found it quite challenging especially with balancing and maintaining moisture content between where it shouldn’t be and where it is required to be.

This year, a research team was formed and this was led by Assistant Professor Tan Swee Ching. He comes from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. They have created a novel MEG device that can constantly maintain a difference in water content and generate electrical output, and the best part of this is that it can sustain what it does for hundreds of hours, which already makes a big difference.

The MEG device that the team designed is made of a thin layer of fabric coated with carbon nanoparticles. When they performed the study, the team utilized a commercially available fabric that’s made from wood pulp and polyester.

Then, one part of the fabric that’s used is coated with a hygroscopic ionic hydrogel. This was what they called the wet region. With the help of sea salt, the special water-absorbing gel is able to take in more than six times its original weight. This is the very thing used to harvest moisture coming from the air around.

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“Sea salt was chosen as the water-absorbing compound due to its non-toxic properties and its potential to provide a sustainable option for desalination plants to dispose of the generated sea salt and brine,” said Assistant Professor Tan.

When there’s a wet region, there’s also the other end which is the dry region. This part doesn’t have the hygroscopic ionic hydrogel layer. They specifically designed the fabric this way to make sure that the area stays dry and that the water present is trapped only in the wet region.

When the MEG device has been completely put together and properly assembled, the generation of electricity happens when the ions of sea salt are separated when the water gets absorbed in its wet region. The free ions with a positive charge are absorbed in the carbon nanoparticles, which contain the opposite charge. This makes changes happen on the surface portion of the cloth and when that takes place, it is able to generate an electric field all across.

The wet-dry regions is its most unique design and the team was able to show how they are able to sustain electrical output even when the wet region becomes fully saturated with water from the surrounding areas. When this technology is left in an open humid environment for around a months, water is maintained just in the wet area, this demonstrating how effective the device is when it comes to maintaining its electrical output.

“With this unique asymmetric structure, the electric performance of our MEG device is significantly improved in comparison with prior MEG technologies, thus making it possible to power many common electronic devices, such as health monitors and wearable electronics,” Tan elaborated on how its works and what can benefit from it.

The MEG device also has immediate applications. All credit can be given it how it’s easy for them to scale this kind of technology and how the raw materials they use are readily available in the commercial space. Among the many of its immediate applications is for making a portable power source for the portable-powering of electronics directly with the use of ambient humidity.

This works simply with the connection of the three pieces of the power-generating fabric together and then putting them into a 3D printed case which is roughly the size of a standard AA battery. The team had also tested out the voltage of the assembled device because they wanted to see if it’s able to reach as high as 1.96V. This is actually higher than the commercial AA battery which goes up to just around 1.5V. This means that it contains enough energy to power small electronic devices like alarm clocks.

The NUS invention can be scaled easily because it’s easy for manufacturers to get their hands on commercially available raw materials. It’s also easy to manufacture because of the low fabrication cost of just around SIN$0.15 per square meter. When perfected, the MEG device can be made for mass production and many people can finally get their hands on this small, yet powerful tool that they can easily and readily apply in the devices used for their daily grind.

“Our device shows excellent scalability at a low fabrication cost. Compared to other MEG structures and devices, our invention is simpler and easier for scaling-up integrations and connections. We believe it holds vast promise for commercialization,” added Tan.



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