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Getting a charge out of water droplets: Water jumping from a superhydrophobic surface can be harnessed to produce electricity

Date:
July 11, 2014
Source:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Summary:
Last year, researchers discovered that when water droplets spontaneously jump away from superhydrophobic surfaces during condensation, they can gain electric charge in the process. Now, the same team has demonstrated that this process can generate small amounts of electricity that might be used to power electronic devices.

Images from a field emission scanning electron microscope show (left) an oxidized copper-oxide surface and (right) a copper-oxide surface with a 30 nanometer-thick hydrophobic coating. The inset images show a water droplet on the surface: At left, the droplet spreads out to wet the uncoated surface; at right, the droplet beads up on the hydrophobic surface, making very little contact.
Credit: Nenad Miljkovic and Daniel J. Preston

Last year, MIT researchers discovered that when water droplets spontaneously jump away from superhydrophobic surfaces during condensation, they can gain electric charge in the process. Now, the same team has demonstrated that this process can generate small amounts of electricity that might be used to power electronic devices.

The new findings, by postdoc Nenad Miljkovic, associate professor of mechanical engineering Evelyn Wang, and two others, are published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

This approach could lead to devices to charge cellphones or other electronics using just the humidity in the air. As a side benefit, the system could also produce clean water.

The device itself could be simple, Miljkovic says, consisting of a series of interleaved flat metal plates. Although his initial tests involved copper plates, he says any conductive metal would do, including cheaper aluminum.

In initial testing, the amount of power produced was vanishingly small -- just 15 picowatts, or trillionths of a watt, per square centimeter of metal plate. But Miljkovic says the process could easily be tuned to achieve at least 1 microwatt, or millionth of a watt, per square centimeter. Such output would be comparable to that of other systems that have been proposed for harvesting waste heat, vibrations, or other sources of ambient energy, and represents an amount that could be sufficient to provide useful power for electronic devices in some remote locations.

For example, Miljkovic has calculated that at 1 microwatt per square centimeter, a cube measuring about 50 centimeters on a side -- about the size of a typical camping cooler -- could be sufficient to fully charge a cellphone in about 12 hours. While that may seem slow, he says, people in remote areas may have few alternatives.

There are some constraints: Because the process relies on condensation, it requires a humid environment, as well as a source of temperatures colder than the surrounding air, such as a cave or river.

The system is based on Miljkovic and Wang's 2013 finding -- in attempting to develop an improved heat-transfer surface to be used as a condenser in applications such as power plants -- that droplets on a superhydrophobic surface convert surface energy to kinetic energy as they merge to form larger droplets. This sometimes causes the droplets to spontaneously jump away, enhancing heat transfer by 30 percent relative to other techniques. They later found that in that process, the jumping droplets gain a small electric charge -- meaning that the jumping, and the accompanying transfer of heat, could be enhanced by a nearby metal plate whose opposite charge is attractive to the droplets.

Now the researchers have shown that the same process can be used to generate power, simply by giving the second plate a hydrophilic surface. As the droplets jump, they carry charge from one plate to the other; if the two plates are connected through an external circuit, that charge difference can be harnessed to provide power.

In a practical device, two arrays of metal plates, like fins on a radiator, would be interleaved, so that they are very close but not touching. The system would operate passively, with no moving parts.

For powering remote, automated environmental sensors, even a tiny amount of energy might be sufficient; any location where dew forms would be capable of producing power for a few hours in the morning, Miljkovic says. "Water will condense out from the atmosphere, it happens naturally," he says.

"The atmosphere is a huge source of power, and all you need is a temperature difference between the air and the device," he adds -- allowing the device to produce condensation, just as water condenses from warm, humid air on the outside of a cold glass.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The original article was written by David L. Chandler. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Nenad Miljkovic, Daniel J. Preston, Ryan Enright, Evelyn N. Wang. Jumping-droplet electrostatic energy harvesting. Applied Physics Letters, 2014; 105 (1): 013111 DOI: 10.1063/1.4886798

Cite This Page:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Getting a charge out of water droplets: Water jumping from a superhydrophobic surface can be harnessed to produce electricity." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 July 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140711132849.htm>.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2014, July 11). Getting a charge out of water droplets: Water jumping from a superhydrophobic surface can be harnessed to produce electricity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 28, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140711132849.htm
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Getting a charge out of water droplets: Water jumping from a superhydrophobic surface can be harnessed to produce electricity." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140711132849.htm (accessed July 28, 2014).

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