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Jun Yao Garners $100,000 Sony Faculty Innovation Award for “Air-Generator”

Jun Yao

Jun Yao

Jun Yao, an assistant professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and an adjunct professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department, is the principal investigator for a Sony Faculty Innovation Award of $100,000. The award is based on Yao’s device, called an "Air Generator," or “Air-Gen,” which is capable of creating inexpensive, renewable, clean energy on a constant basis.

The new technology could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change, and medicine, among other practical uses.

Yao and co-principal-investigator Derek Lovley, a UMass professor of microbiology, developed the Air-Gen from the microbe Geobacter, discovered by Lovley many years ago, to create electricity from moisture in the air.

As Yao says, “We are literally making electricity out of thin air. The Air-Gen generates clean energy 24/7.”

According to Yao, “The hope is that the [Sony] Award can support us to develop some clever engineering strategies to scale up the technology; for example, to make small-scale, integrated, thin-film devices that may power up wearable sensors/devices.”

The pioneering Air-Gen device was recently chosen by Geek Tech on its listing of most interesting scientific discoveries of the year 2020.

The Air-Gen connects electrodes to the protein nanowires in such a way that electrical current is generated from the water vapor naturally present in the atmosphere. The device is also non-polluting, renewable, and can be produced inexpensively.

Working with these pioneering green biomaterials, Yao, Lovley, and their research associates are creating trailblazing devices to tackle some of the world’s most vital problems, such as producing clean energy for self-sustaining systems, generating inexpensive electricity in economically strapped countries, helping to transform neuromorphic computing, developing bioelectric ammonia gas sensors, and much, much more.

The Sony Award is yet one more stage in the research completed by Yao and Lovley with Geobacter as the basis. In the past 18 months, their groundbreaking work on new biomaterials harvested from the humble microbe Geobacter has inspired articles in such renowned scientific journals as Nature, Nature Communications, NanoResearch, and Advanced Electronic Materials.

As Yao explains, “All these articles are based on the same amazing biomaterial, feeding into the vision of developing future 'green' electronics based on biomaterials.”

Subsequently, those journal papers also stoked international media coverage in more than 50 outlets, including Science, The Science Times, The Engineer, Popular Science, Cosmos, Environmental Journal, The Weather Channel, and Phys.org.

Yao and Lovley also received the 2020 Armstrong Fund for Science Award from UMass Amherst for related research.

The Sony Faculty Innovation Award provides up to $100,000 in funds to conduct pioneering research, speed up and expand the creation of new ideas, help cultivate advanced concepts, and fertilize Sony’s own research and development. (March 2021)