Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have designed a new device that can generate electricity from snowfall.
The device, called as snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator or snow TENG, is an inexpensive, small, thin and flexible like a sheet of plastic which generates charge through static electricity, produces energy from the exchange of electrons.
Senior author Richard Kaner, who holds UCLA’s Dr. Myung Ki Hong Endowed Chair in Materials Innovation said the device can work in remote areas because it provides its own power and does not need batteries.
“It’s a very clever device — a weather station that can tell you how much snow is falling, the direction the snow is falling, and the direction and speed of the wind,” he added.
“Static electricity occurs from the interaction of one material that captures electrons and another that gives up electrons.You separate the charges and create electricity out of essentially nothing,” said Kaner.
Snow is positively charged and gives up electrons. Silicone — a synthetic rubber-like material that is composed of silicon atoms and oxygen atoms, combined with carbon, hydrogen and other elements — is negatively charged. When falling snow contacts the surface of silicone, that produces a charge that the device captures, creating electricity.
Co-author Maher El-Kady, a UCLA assistant researcher of chemistry and biochemistry said that the snow likes to give up electrons and the performance of the device depends on the efficiency of the other material at extracting these electrons.
“Snow is already charged, so we thought, why not bring another material with the opposite charge and extract the charge to create electricity? After testing a large number of materials including aluminum foils and Teflon, we found that silicone produces more charge than any other material,” El-Kady added.
About 30 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by snow each winter, during which time solar panels often fail to operate, El-Kady noted.
“The accumulation of snow reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the solar array, limiting the panels’ power output and rendering them less effective. The new device could be integrated into solar panels to provide a continuous power supply when it snows”, he said.
The device can easily be used for monitoring winter sports, such as skiing, to more precisely assess and improve an athlete's performance when running, walking or jumping, Kaner said.
It could usher in a new generation of self-powered wearable devices for tracking athletes and their performances, researchers said.
The device can also send signals, indicating whether a person is moving. It can tell when a person is walking, running, jumping or marching, they said.
The research team used 3-D printing to design the device, which has a layer of silicone and an electrode to capture the charge.
The researchers believe the device could be produced at the low cost given "the ease of fabrication and the availability of silicone," Kaner said.