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Yao Receives 2020 Armstrong Fund for Science Award to Develop Device That Makes Electricity “out of Thin Air”

Jun Yao

Jun Yao

Jun Yao, an assistant professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and an adjunct professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department, is the principal investigator for the interdisciplinary team of researchers who received the 2020 Armstrong Fund for Science Award from UMass Amherst. Yao and co-principal-investigator Derek Lovley, a UMass professor of microbiology, are developing a device that uses a natural protein to create electricity from moisture in the air. They will receive a two-year, $40,000 grant to support scaling up the invention for practical applications.

The News Office story explained that the new technology could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change, and medicine, as the researchers point out. They call the device an “Air-gen,” or air-powered generator. It uses electrically conductive protein nanowires produced by the microbe Geobacter to connect to electrodes so electrical current is generated from water vapor.

As Yao describes it in the News Office article, “We are literally making electricity out of thin air. The Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7.”

The new technology being developed in Yao’s lab is non-polluting, renewable, and low-cost. It can generate power even in areas with extremely low humidity such as a desert, as Yao points out to the News Office. Lovley says that Air-gen has significant advantages over other forms of renewable energy, including solar and wind, because, unlike these sources, it does not require sunlight or wind, and it works indoors.

Lovley, who has advanced sustainable biological-based electronic materials such as the nanowires over the past three decades, says that “It’s the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires yet.”

Yao says of the award, “We are honored to receive the Armstrong Fund Award, both as a recognition of our discovery and the very critical support for us to further develop the technology for attracting extramural investment and commercialization potential.”

According to the News Office, benefactors John and Elizabeth Armstrong established their Fund for Science in 2006 to identify and support promising research directions that do not yet have enough data available for the principals to apply to standard funding channels. The research of Yao and Lovley had earlier support from the UMass Office of Technology Commercialization and Ventures and the College of Natural Sciences. (June 2020)