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Rainwater: A Powerful New Alternative

Georgie Chantrell-Plant learns more about the latest sustainable innovation for generating electricity.

Photo by Aleksandr Slobodianyk

Good news for sustainable innovation with research published in Nature suggesting that it could soon be possible to generate electricity from rainwater.

The concerns of climate change and it's impact on our planet is a motivator for many in creating new sustainable alternatives to our current fossil fuel dependency.

A research study has been published on the recent developments in this latest scientific venture, co-authored by Xiao Cheng Zeng and Zuankai Wang, heralding from City University of Hong Kong and The University of Nebraska-Lincoln suggests there may be new way.

Innovating The Impossible

Something which seemed near to impossible to achieve like creating electricity from the rain, is getting closer and closer to a breakthrough. The newly discovered method of harnessing electricity from rainwater could in fact generate enough power to light 100 small LED bulbs with a single raindrop, a prospect that is leaps and bounds ahead of any other previous attempts.

"Our research shows that a drop of 100 microlitres of water released from a height of 15 centimetres [5.9 inches] can generate a voltage of over 140V, and the power generated can light up 100 small LED lights," claims Wang, a biomedical engineer.

The Technical Side

How was this achieved? By making improvements to the already-established Droplet-Based Electricity Generator (DEG) with the addition of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE- a formula which can be found in Teflon) Film which in turn creates a surface charge as it is continuously hit by water droplets. As the droplets hit the surface, they then act as a bridge that connects two electrodes: Aluminium electrodes and Indium Tin Oxide.

This then creates a closed-loop surface in which all the collected energy can be released. What this means is that the water droplets now become resistors, and the PTFE film coating acts as a capacitor. By having a coating that has a near-permanent electric charge, the generator is then able to slowly collect charge from continuously falling droplets and store it until it reaches its capacity, effectively converting those droplets into a form of energy.

Significant Stride for the Future

This study only looked at the effects of droplets falling a small distance, but due to its generic design, it is hoped that this process can eventually be applied anywhere where water hits a solid surface, for example the hull of a boat or the top of an umbrella, meaning it could be adapted to harvest energy from waves or even water that is enclosed within a tube. The researchers suggest that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a falling droplet for it to provide harvestable energy.

Chemist Xiao Cheng Zeng spoke out in an interview for Vice, stating:

"The significance of this technology is the much-enhanced electric power per falling rain droplet, which makes the device much more efficient to convert energy from a falling droplet to electricity”.

This process still has a great way to come, so transforming it into a single and accessible renewable energy source is still quite far off in the distance. It still has numerous obstacles to overcome, one of those being a way to prevent electrode corrosion, so it may be a while until this venture is brought outside of a lab.

It is hoped that within five years, a proof of concept and prototype will be completed.

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