Far Out #4: Power out of thin air, power out of freezing air, & Fruit power

Graphic image of a thin film of protein nanowires generating electricity from atmospheric humidity. UMass Amherst researchers say the device can literally make electricity out of thin air. Credit: UMass Amherst/Yao and Lovley labs

Preface. To get power out of thin air after oil, the 90% of people who have had to go back to farming are going to be making protein nanowires from microbes in the chicken coop in their spare time. Scaling up microbes to keep the lights on and trucks running is about as likely as powering the world with flea circuses. Now there’s an idea!

Fruit power: At such a small scale, this won’t solve the energy crisis, and no doubt takes more energy to construct than what it can store over its lifetime, but I’m delighted that durian and jackfruit waste is good for anything at all, in this case super-capacitors to charge phones and laptops.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Lee, K., et al. 2020. Aerogel from fruit biowaste produces ultracapacitors with high energy density and stability. Journal of Energy Storage 27.

Durian fruit is so famous for its awful smell that it is banned on several mass transit systems and many hotels and airports. According to wikipedia, animals can smell it from half a mile away, with an odor of raw sewage, rotten onions, turpentine, pig-shit, vomit, skunk spray, and garnished with gym socks.

Researchers have found a way to turn durian and jackfruit into electrochemical super-capacitors, which are like energy reservoirs that dole out energy smoothly. They can quickly store large amounts of energy within a small battery-sized device and then supply energy to charge electronic devices, such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops, within a few seconds.

“Using a non-toxic and non-hazardous green engineering method that used heating in water and freeze drying of the fruit’s biomass, the durian and jackfruit were transformed into stable carbon aerogels — an extremely light and porous synthetic material used for a range of applications.”

“Carbon aerogels make great super-capacitors because they are highly porous. We then used the fruit-derived aerogels to make electrodes which we tested for their energy storage properties, which we found to be exceptional,” Gomes says. “Compared to batteries, super-capacitors are not only able to charge devices very quickly but also in orders of magnitude greater charging cycles than conventional devices.

The team found that the super-capacitors they prepared were significantly more efficient than current ones, which are made from activated carbon.

Fialka, J., et al. 2020. To store renewable energy, try freezing air. Scientific American.

A British company called Highview Power proposes a novel solution: a storage system that uses renewable electricity from solar or wind to freeze air into a liquid state at -196 C where it can be kept in insulated high pressure storage tanks for hours or even weeks. The frozen air is allowed to warm and turn itself back into a gas. It expands so quickly that its power can spin a turbine for an electric generator. The resulting electricity is fed into transmission lines when they are not congested.

[My comment: how much does this cost? How much energy to keep the air chilled to -321 Fahrenheit? Is the energy return on invested positive? ]

UMA. 2020. New green technology generates electricity ‘out of thin air’. University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Scientists have made a protein that creates electricity from moisture in the air, a device they call an “Air-gen.” or air-powered generator, with electrically conductive protein nanowires less than 10 microns thick produced by the microbe Geobacter. which can generate electric current from water vapor in the air.

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5 Responses to Far Out #4: Power out of thin air, power out of freezing air, & Fruit power

  1. Jon Wesenberg says:

    I just commented on this article, posted on FB by a friend.
    Using carbonized plant cellulose to fabricate high surface area capacitor electrodes is legitimate, and may actually reduce embodied energy in the capacitors by shrinking their size. What supercapacitors won’t and can’t do is act as drop-in replacements for batteries in most cases. This is due to much lower gravimetric and volumetric energy density. Of course, since this involves hemp, lots of people jumped in and claimed that hemp can be used to replace all plastics, replace petroleum, heal every disease, etc. (Sigh.)

    Liquid air storage might be useful if building and maintaining the plant doesn’t require too much energy. Keeping that much liquid air chilled has a size advantage in that thermal losses are a function of surface area, not volume. It’s not a good solution for seasonal storage, but that’s not what it was designed for.

    • energyskeptic says:

      When it comes to energy, all that matters is that the energy returned on invested is at least 10 times more return to maintain civilization as we know it (oil started out at a 100 : 1 ratio, just one barrel could get you 100 more). Anything, like a capacitor or battery, that requires fossil fuels to be made, can automatically be ruled out. Batteries also can’t make themselves because it takes fossils to generate up to 3000 F in heat to make metals, cement, glass, bricks, and other products.

  2. Kira says:

    These technologies seem a lot more scalable and commercial since they are simple and use simple materials such as iron, salt and water for flow battery and cement blocks for gravity storage.

    • energyskeptic says:

      But they require fossil fuels to mine the materials, fabricate, and transport them. So they can’t outlast fossils Cement and iron can only be made with fossil fuels or biomass charcoal, so they don’t scale up. Any time you see the word “could” it is yet another PR release hoping to get more money from investors or grant money. Don’t hold your breath. I’ve seen literally thousands of these since I began researching energy 20+ years ago

      • Kira says:

        I completely agree with you that these so called “renewable” technologies are completely dependent on fossil fuels for their entire life cycle and last only 20-25 years at best. If they can’t produce enough energy to power the society and replicate themselves at the same time then they do not qualify as renewables.

        The point I was trying to make is that we can scale down consumption by eliminating unnecessary things. For instance – Everybody on this planet does not need a smartphone or a computer, they are most useful for researchers, engineers, military and colleges. This is how things were in the 80s and 90s. We can go back to doing things that way. We can localize production and consumption for most things especially for agriculture. For the things that absolutely must be transported we can depend on fossil fuels.
        It is in this context that the technologies mentioned in the video might play a significant role in maintaining some form of industrial society.

        Trying to maintain today’s civilization with solar panels and wind turbines is next to impossible because of laws of physics and thermodynamics.

        This is an interesting paper on EROI estimates for the future for coal, gas and oil. Would like to hear your thoughts on this.