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NEWS
Evaporation-Harvested Energy Could Be New Source of Power Generation
November 24, 2017

As the search for alternate forms of energy generation beyond solar and wind continues, researchers are casting their gaze into investigations of possibly more reliable and unique methods.

According to information provided by Columbia University, researchers have discovered, in the first evaluation of evaporation as a renewable energy source, that U.S. lakes and reservoirs could generate 325 gigawatts of power, nearly 70 percent of what the United States currently produces.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the study, “Potential for natural evaporation as a reliable renewable energy resource,” published in a recent issue of the journal Nature Communications, notes that evaporation-harvested power could in principle be made on demand, day or night, overcoming the intermittency problems plaguing solar and wind.

Although currently limited to experiments in the lab, the study’s senior author Ozgur Sahin, associate professor of Biological Sciences and Physics at Columbia, noted that, “We have the technology to harness energy from wind, water and the sun, but evaporation is just as powerful. We can now put a number on its potential.”

Evaporation is nature’s way of cycling water between land and air. Prof. Sahin has previously shown how this basic process can be exploited to do work. One machine developed in his lab, the so-called Evaporation Engine, controls humidity with a shutter that opens and closes, prompting bacterial spores to expand and contract. The spores’ contractions are transferred to a generator that makes electricity. The current study was designed to test how much power this process could theoretically produce.

One benefit of evaporation is that it can be generated only when needed. Solar and wind power, by contrast, require batteries to supply power when the sun isn’t shining and wind isn’t blowing. Batteries are expensive and require toxic materials to manufacture.

“Evaporation comes with a natural battery,” said study lead author, Ahmet-Hamdi Cavusoglu, a graduate student at Columbia. “You can make it your main source of power and draw on solar and wind when they’re available.”

The researchers simplified their model in several ways to test evaporation’s potential. They limited their calculations to the United States, where weather station data is easily accessible, and excluded prime locations such as farmland, rivers, the Great Lakes, and coastlines, to limit errors associated with modeling more complex interactions. They also made the assumption that technology to harvest energy from evaporation efficiently is fully developed.

The researchers are working to improve the energy efficiency of their spore-studded materials and hope to eventually test their concept on a lake, reservoir, or even a greenhouse, where the technology could be used to simultaneously make power and save water.


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