Two scientists have developed a device that captures the electrical charge from falling snow.
By Marlene Cimons
When the conversation turns to clean, renewable energy, the talk almost always is about sun and wind. No one ever brings up another natural power source, as yet untapped — snow. Incredible as it may sound, falling snow carries an electrical charge. Scientists have known this for decades, but until recently they couldn’t figure out how to turn it into electricity.
Two UCLA scientists have invented a device that uses silicone to capture the electrical charge from snow — and create electricity. Their tool is uncomplicated, small, thin and flexible, inexpensive and — because it generates its own power — needs no batteries. With an average annual seasonal snowfall cover of nearly one-third of the Earth’s land mass, “we have a great source of energy ready to be collected,” said Maher El-Kady, a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA and co-inventor of the device. “And we can do that using materials that are already produced in mass quantities.”
To be sure, their invention is still a “proof of concept” experiment for now, since its power output remains low. But the researchers believe its potential — with more fine-tuning and further study — could be limitless. “Big improvements are normal in this field of research,” El-Kady said. “There is room for development [and] further improvements by revisiting the device structure and operating mode.”
He and co-inventor Richard Kaner, a distinguished professor of chemistry, biochemistry, materials science and engineering, see numerous future uses. It could power a portable weather station, for example, or a wearable gadget that tracks the performance of cold-weather athletes. The device could also be integrated into solar panels, kicking in extra power during snowstorms, a scenario when solar arrays are less efficient, they said.
The way it works is deceptively simple. Snow carries a positive charge. Silicone, a synthetic rubbery material, carries a negative charge. When falling snow comes into contact with silicone — bang — electricity.
This is the latest in a series of innovative collaborations to emerge from Kaner’s lab. The pair of scientists also invented a membrane that separates oil from water and also cleans up the debris left by fracking, designed in collaboration with a company called PolyCera. In 2017, they invented a device that uses solar power to cheaply generate and store power for electronic devices and also manufactures hydrogen fuel for automobiles. Earlier this year, they created a fire-retardant, self-extinguishing motion sensor and power generator that can be built into shoes or clothing firefighters wear.