Bioengineers from Columbia University have just developed the first water powered engine in the world that could act as a source of clean energy for various electric devices.
In the study, published earlier this week, on Tuesday (June 16, 2015), in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers explained that the new invention works by collecting energy created when natural water evaporates at room temperatures and using bacterial spores that shrink and swell depending on the changes in humidity.
The water powered engine is under four (4) inches on each side and can generate up to 1.8 microwatts of energy, which makes it suitable for powering a LED light or a very small car.
Work on the project started roughly a decade ago, when Ozgur Sahin, lead author and associate professor, was involved in research focused on studying bacterial spores and got inspired enough to begin his own project. Professor Sahin gave a statement to The Post, saying that other researchers before him and his team had shown how the spores can change shape in response to humidity.
He went on to explain that “They shrink when they’re dry and expand when exposed to moisture. But in our studies, we found them to be surprisingly rigid. That told us that this shape change must come with a lot of energy. In the beginning, I was just amazed at this biological substance. But then I thought, there must be applications for this”.
Professor Sahin has already published several studies that show how spores are capable of harvesting huge amounts of energy die to their interaction with water. What was different this time around was that he realized he had to show the action of energy storage and release in order to move forward with the project.
He got passed the obstacle by placing a device on the surface of a reservoir of water and making shutters that he used to either allow moisture through or block it. This allowed him control how the humidity affected the movements of the spores inside, causing them to wither expand or contract.
He also realized the device could be self-regulating if he managed to find a way to rigg the spores to the shutters. He found that when spores become dry they shrink and close the shutters in order to create a moist environment fir themselves. This in turn causes them to expand and open the shutters back up.
The engine is already available on the market for the price of $5, however the researchers admit that they are just in the early states of understanding what the technology can really do.
In fact professor Sahin insists that he and his team cut a lot of corners in order to create a prototype that works and the further progress could be made quickly. He firmly believes that the technology could eventually produce more energy per square than wind mills currently do.
Peter Fratzl, from Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, gave a statement of his own, informing that this is not the first time someone captured evaporating energy, however it is the first time that has done on a scale that allowed for objects to be moved.