A Chinese research team claims to have developed nanogenerators capable of harvesting power from the ocean’s waves via static electricity.
Harnessing energy from waves is not an entirely novel concept. In fact, scientists have toyed with the notion for centuries.
In 1799, a Parisian engineer called Girard filed what most scholars believe to be the first patent for an energy harvesting device. The simple direct mechanical system powered mills, saws and pumps.
Between 1855 and 1973, more than 340 patents were granted in England alone. In 1910, another Frenchman, Bochaux Praceique, developed a machine that powered his home’s lights and other electrical devices.
Fast-forward a century, and a Chinese team representing the Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems believes it’s developed a potentially ground-breaking concept that could usher in an era where wave-generated power becomes a commercially viable option for the renewable energy industry.
The research, headed by Zhong Lin Wang and published in New Scientist, utilises a phenomenon known as the triboelectric effect. Simply put, it is the static energy created when two oppositely charged materials rub against one another, like touching a door handle while wearing socks on a carpeted floor.
The scientific community has explored the potential of triboelectric energy for decades but has yet to invent a device that can be produced and installed at scale.
Zhong and his team believe that by building nanogenerators – small cylinders that house minute, spring-like coils that oscillate with the motion of waves – they can capture the ocean’s limitless energy.
Because of their relatively small size, Zhong’s nanogenerators only produce a small amount of energy. Linking up hundreds and even thousands of these cylinders can produce significant amounts of energy, according to the team’s early findings.
Zhong, who created the first working example of a triboelectric nanogenerator in 2012, says his invention produces 347 watts of power per cubic metre – more than double the output of what was previously thought achievable.
The key to success lies in the size of the generators, according to the team’s study. Packing as many units as possible into every cubic meter of water maximizes the potential energy output, Zhong explained.