Fast Company: Winter is coming, but good news: We can now harvest energy from snow
Anyone who has left their iPhone in a subzero car only to find the battery dead, or watched a blanket of snow cast a shadow over their solar panels, knows: The freezing cold and electronics do not mix.
That may soon change. Researchers at UCLA have developed a first-of-its-kind breakthrough by building a small silicone sensor-generator that can harvest electricity directly from snow–dubbed a “snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator” or “Snow TENG.” It could lead to a new wave of wearable electronics, more efficient solar panels, and even entire buildings that can produce energy during winter weather with a simple coat of paint.
Since the 1960s, scientists have understood a strange phenomenon of snow: It’s positively charged. That means if it lands on something with a negative charge, it will pass over its electrons, creating static electricity.
“We know snow is willing to give up electrons, [so] we thought why not bring another material with the opposite charge to extract these electrons to create electricity,” says Maher El-Kady, assistant researcher at UCLA.
Researchers tested Teflon and aluminum foils for the job, but what worked best was simple silicone. This cheap, omnipresent substance used across almost every industry performed better than anything else at snagging electrons. What the team eventually worked out was a method to 3D print silicone on top of a plastic electrode, which could capture the static electricity harvested by the silicone. Snow just needs to fall, or come into contact with the silicone to create energy. As a bonus, it’s durable, flexible, and water-resistant, too–requiring neither metal nor batteries to work.
“As a starting point, I think wearables for tracking purposes could be the most practical application,” says El-Kady, given that Snow TENG still only creates slight levels of energy. He could bring such wearable tech to market through his commercial enterprise Nanotech Energy, where he is also CTO and his fellow researcher Richard Kaner sits on the advisory board.