Solar and wind power get all the attention, but harvesting energy from evaporation could go a long way toward solving our power problems — at least in theory.
This method of harvesting energy is in very early stages. Unlike solar and wind power, evaporation technology is not commercialized yet and won’t be for a while. So is it worth pursuing further? Scientists wrote a model to figure this out, and predicted that the energy potentially available from evaporation is comparable to that of wind and solar power. The research was published today in the journal Nature Communications.
If we were able to harvest evaporation energy from the existing lakes and reservoirs in the US — excluding the Great Lakes in the Midwest — we could generate 325 gigawatts (2.85 million megawatt hours per year). That’s about 70 percent of the total US electrical energy generation in 2015. Energy from evaporation, unlike solar or wind, is less dependent on the weather. Of course, it’s not likely that we’d be able to use the water from every lake, and the authors do note that this could affect freshwater resources. But the paper suggests that evaporation-based energy could have a big impact.
How do you harvest energy from evaporation? Study author and Columbia University biophysicist Ozgur Sahin first developed the “evaporation engine” in a 2015 paper. Imagine you have a material that changes size when there’s a lot of water inside it. (In Sahin’s case, the material were tiny spores.) The spores absorb water and get bigger. When it’s hot, the water evaporates and the spores shrink.
Now, if you think of the spores as a muscle that contracts and elongates, says Sahin, you can connect it to a generator that produces electricity from motion, and then harvest energy from that process.
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