UCLA Researchers Have Designed a Device Capable of Creating Electricity from Falling Snow

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Researchers can turn snowfall in to electricity. Credit: Jessica Fadel | Unsplash

In what is the first of its kind, researchers at UCLA have designed a new device that has the ability to create electricity from falling snow. The device is inexpensive, small, thin and flexible like a sheet of plastic reports the UCLA Newsroom.

“The device can work in remote areas because it provides its own power and does not need batteries,” said senior author Richard Kaner, who holds UCLA’s Dr. Myung Ki Hong Endowed Chair in Materials Innovation, “It’s a very clever device — a weather station that can tell you how much snow is falling, the direction the snow is falling, and the direction and speed of the wind.”

The researchers call it a snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator, or snow TENG. A triboelectric nanogenerator, which generates charge through static electricity, produces energy from the exchange of electrons.

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Maher El-Kady and Richard Kaner. CRedit: Stuart Wolpert/UCLA

Findings about the device have been published in the journal Nano Energy.

“Static electricity occurs from the interaction of one material that captures electrons and another that gives up electrons,” said Kaner, who is also a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering, and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. “You separate the charges and create electricity out of essentially nothing.”

Snow is positively charged and gives up electrons. Silicone — a synthetic rubbCredite material that is composed of silicon atoms and oxygen atoms, combined with carbon, hydrogen and other elements — is negatively charged. When falling snow contacts the surface of silicone, that produces a charge that the device captures, creating electricity.

“Snow is already charged, so we thought, why not bring another material with the opposite charge and extract the charge to create electricity?” said co-author Maher El-Kady, a UCLA assistant researcher of chemistry and biochemistry.

About 30 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by snow each winter, during which time solar panels often fail to operate, El-Kady noted. The accumulation of snow reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the solar array, limiting the panels’ power output and rendering them less effective. The new device could be integrated into solar panels to provide a continuous power supply when it snows, he said.

The device can be used for monitoring winter sports, such as skiing, to more precisely assess and improve an athlete’s performance when running, walking or jumping, Kaner said. It also has the potential for identifying the main movement patterns used in cross-country skiing, which cannot be detected with a smartwatch. It could usher in a new generation of self-powered wearable devices for tracking athletes and their performances. It can also send signals, indicating whether a person is moving and can tell when a person is walking, running, jumping or marching.