Nanoscience Professor Xi Chen Awarded NSF Grant to Explore Harnessing Evaporation to Produce Clean Energy

Photo of Professor Xi Chen

In the realm of renewable energy where solar, wind, and thermal sources take center stage, a new technology is quietly emerging: energy generation through evaporation. Though in its infancy, evaporation technology holds the potential to revolutionize the clean energy sector by providing an efficient, abundant, and cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels.

Xi Chen, a professor with the ASRC’s Nanoscience Initiative, and his transdisciplinary research team have secured a $650,000 NSF Convergence Accelerator Phase 1 grant as part of the program’s Track M: Bio-Inspired Design Innovations. The funding will support the development of water-responsive materials and generators. The generators use the actuation created by these materials to harness evaporation and produce clean, renewable energy.

“Our aim of this year-long, Phase 1 project is to establish platforms for the design and manufacturing of water-responsive materials and develop preliminary prototypes and simulation models of evaporation energy harvesting devices.” said Chen, the project’s principal investigator.

The research team will produce materials from two sources. One is peptidoglycan, a macromolecule that can found within bacterial cell walls. Peptidoglycan strongly reacts to humidity, and it has the highest power and energy density compared to other actuator materials, including artificial muscles. The other material is silk collected from silkworm cocoons, which can be made into large sheets or other structures. As the water in these materials evaporate, the generators autonomously convert evaporation energy into mechanical motion and electricity. One notable advantage of this technology is its capacity to function both day and night, solving the important “intermittency” problem in energy storage for solar and wind.

The ambitious research effort aims to produce prototypes within the next year and conduct product demonstrations for organizations and companies by the third year.

Spanning various scientific disciplines within the ASRC and encompassing policy and marketing expertise, the transdisciplinary team also includes researchers from The City College of New York, Hunter College, Columbia University, New York University, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), GE research, Cannon, Ginkgo Bioworks, and ISEE Systems. The team’s diverse expertise is aimed at garnering public support for new approaches to renewable energy technology, said Charles Vörösmarty, founding director of the ASRC’s Environmental Science Initiative and a co-principal investigator on the project.

“When you’re working with new technology, the general public isn’t going to know how it works and what it can offer,” said Vörösmarty. “For example, the Department Of Energy doesn’t have an evaporation program yet because the technology is so new. It’s important to gather people on our team with different expertise, like those in policy and marketing, so we can better inform people about the potential results the technology offers and bring it from the lab to real life to make it truly transformational.”

The adaptable design of the generators allows them to be tailored to the needs and available space of their installation location, offering an alternative clean energy source for areas where solar and wind might face limitations due to weather or terrain.

“One technique cannot solve all of the energy issues we’re facing today,” said Chen. “But this will provide another choice for clean energy that might be a better fit for people depending on their location and weather.”