A team of researchers from the University of California Los Angeles have created a unique device that can generate electricity from snowfall, science media report, citing a paper published in the journal Nano Technology.
The device is basically a vastly improved weather station, which, in addition to measuring how much snow is falling at any given time and what direction and speed the wind is blowing at, can convert the snow power utilizing the principles of static electricity generation.
The researchers have called their creation a snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator, or a snow TENG, and the senior author of the paper, chemistry and biochemistry professor Richard Kaner, explains it as follows: "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."
In fact, it’s a little bit more than nothing. Snowflakes carry a positive charge, while silicon, which was used for the device’s surface, is negatively charged. When snow falls on the silicone surface, the contact generates an electric charge and the device captures it.
It sounds deceptively simple but the creators of the device did not go straight for silicone. "While snow likes to give up electrons, the performance of the device depends on the efficiency of the other material at extracting these electrons," explains the co-author of the study, postdoctoral researcher Maher El-Kady, as quoted by Nano Magazine. "After testing a large number of materials including aluminum foils and Teflon, we found that silicone produces more charge than any other material."
While the state in which the device came into existence will hardly be the best place for its deployment, there are many parts of the world where snow falls frequently and where the show TENG could potentially have a future as power generator. But the more fascinating part is that, according to El-Kady, the device could be added to solar panels and help boost their efficiency.
Solar panels have no problem with cold weather—in fact they operate more efficiently in colder weather because heat interferes with their operation. But they do have a problem with snow cover. PV panels convert sunlight into power and if their access to sunlight is blocked by a snow buildup, they cannot operate.
Even though solar panel arrays are mounted at an angle so rain and snow slide down the panels, freeing the access to sunlight to the surface, with heavy snowfalls this becomes irrelevant and the panels’ efficiency rate drop steeply. This problem recently came to the fore in the U.S., in states that experienced some pretty harsh winter weather complete with blizzards and snowstorms that effectively brought down the efficiency rates of some solar farms to zero temporarily.
This small device, the snow TENG could solve this problem for the solar power industry, making the panels reliable regardless of the weather and expanding solar’s reach in previously unattractive locations where there’s little sun but lots of snow, combining the benefits of cold weather and static electricity.
By Irina Slav
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