With an energy crisis looming, scientists are turning an eye to another source of clean, renewable energy: Snow.
Yes, snow is electrically charged. People who live in snowy climates may already be familiar with the principle when they touch a metal doorknob during winter and get a little shock. But this team of research scientists from UCLA, University of Toronto, Canada’s McMaster University, and University of Connecticut decided to make use of that energy in a device they created, called a “snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator, or snow TENG”. In other words, it’s a device that generates electricity from snowfall – with potential for several further applications from there.
The first potential application is as a mobile weather station: it can measure the amount of snowfall, as well as direction of snow and wind, along with wind speed. Importantly, though the device didn’t generate a “huge” amount of electricity during tests, it generated enough to power itself without the need for an outside power source, such as batteries. This makes it especially attractive for use in remote areas.
Researchers also envision the device being built into solar panel arrays, which can become dysfunctional during winter as snowfall accumulates and less light reaches the panels. The device could allow for continuity of power supply even during times of heavy snowfall.
The device can also be wearable and provides advantages over using a smart watch. Benefits here include being used for monitoring athlete performance, including winter sports such as cross-country skiing, which involves movement patterns that aren’t detected by a smart watch. The device can also send precise signals, and can detect movements and the specific kind of movements a person is making – running, jumping, walking, etc.
How does it work? Power is generated from static electricity as the snow loses electrons to the silicone surface of the device (snow is positively charged and silicone is negatively charged). Electrons can transfer from snow falling directly on top of the silicone material or just sliding across it. The electrons are then captured by the device to generate electricity — up to 0.2mW/m2. It can also generate an open circuit voltage of up to 8V.
The device is made from silicone, which was found to outperform other materials tested, such as aluminum foil and Teflon. Because silicone is already widely available on the market, researchers believe this device could be made inexpensively and widely – they even used a 3D printer to make it.
At this point, the device is just a proof of concept, and has not yet entered into the market, but researchers are confident that it would be a successful product that’s inexpensive to make and scalable. With 30% of the earth’s surface covered by snow each winter, the device may indeed find its place in the renewable energy market, as well as the wearable device market and meteorology. Whether you’re a scientist, a winter sports enthusiast, or snow is the bane of your existence, everyone can appreciate this new use for a substance we have in abundance – especially as it may help solve some of our energy woes.