The simple action of breathing in and out has inspired scientists to create a new technique for generating clean electricity.
Engineers have designed a device that transforms water into fuel, based on the way our lungs work.
One hundred times thinner than a human hair, the gadget splits water into oxygen and hydrogen, which can be used to create carbon-emission free energy.
This method could help existing green energy technologies – including fuel cells – to run more efficiently, researchers say.
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These are currently used to power hydrogen busses and cars and could be used to power whole cities in the future.
Stanford University set out to develop better electrocatalysts, materials that increase the rate of a chemical reaction at an electrode – an electrical conductor used in batteries and other energy storage systems.
Experts looked to the lungs for inspiration, in the belief that the breathing apparatus used by mammals is one of the most sophisticated systems for two-way gas exchange found in nature.
With each breath, air moves through the tiny, passage-like bronchioles of the lungs until it reaches small sacs called alveoli.
From there, the gas must pass into the bloodstream without spreading out, which would cause harmful bubbles to form.
It’s the unique structure of the alveoli – including a micron-thick membrane that repels water molecules on the inside while attracting them on the outer surface – that prevents those bubbles from forming and makes the gas exchange highly efficient.
It is this intricate system that the team based their clean energy system around.
‘Clean energy technologies have demonstrated the capability of fast gas reactant delivery to the reaction interface, but the reverse pathway – efficient gas product evolution from the catalyst/electrolyte interface- remains challenging,’ said Professor Jun Li, the first author of the study.
HOW THE LUNG-INSPIRED DEVICE WORKS
Experts made a membrane using plastic film with tiny pores on one side which repel water.
They coated the other side with gold and platinum nanoparticles that are involved in the chemical reactions.
They then sealed the edges to make a small pouch with the metal layer on the inside.
When they apply a voltage to water to split it, the hydrogen and oxygen gases are transported through the very thin alveolus-like membrane which allows the oxygen and hydrogen to move through.
The apparatus creates energy as the hydrogen and oxygen passes through the conductive metals on the inside of the pouch.