The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Link Foundation Awards Xiaomeng Liu Fellowship to Study Nonstop Air Generator

Xiaomeng Liu

Xiaomeng Liu

Xiaomeng Liu, a doctoral candidate in the research lab of Assistant Professor Jun Yao of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, has received a prestigious, two-year, $61,000 Link Foundation Energy Fellowship to support his innovative research on the Yao Research Group’s pioneering “Air Generator” (or Air-Gen), which constantly harvests electricity “out of thin air” from the atmosphere.

Yao’s lab is interdisciplinaryteam interested in synthesis and engineering micro/nanoscale materials to enable novel devices, sensors, and their integration on rigid or soft frameworks for functional electronic or bioelectronic systems.

The Link Foundation Energy Fellowship is highly competitive, with only 3 percent of applicants accepted.

As the Link Foundation wrote to Liu, “In making this award to you, the Link Foundation seeks to underscore the great importance of energy related issues during the coming decades, to recognize your achievements to date, and to foster your further development and contributions in the energy field.”

As Liu describes his research, “Harvesting energy from the environment can provide clean energy for self-sustained systems. Existing technologies such as solar cells and windmills are limited by environmental conditions (e.g., light/wind) that restrict where they can be deployed and limit their potential in continuous energy production.”

In response to this issue, Liu has contributed to the Yao Research Group’s groundbreaking Air-Gen technology, which is “a novel type of thin-film device made from microbial protein nanowires that can continuously harvest electricity from ambient humidity,” as Liu explains.

Liu notes that atmospheric humidity is a great source of electricity, as is evident from lightning. He estimates that the amount of electrical current available in the atmosphere is even larger than the annual global electricity consumption. In addition, this source is continuous and ubiquitous. Even the Sahara Desert, he points out, has an average relative humidity approximately 25 percent.

“Thus,” says Liu, “this discovery [of the Air-Gen] can lead to transformative energy technology which, unlike existing intermittent ones, can provide continuous energy unrestricted to location and time. We aim to investigate and develop strategies to translate the lab discovery into scalable technology for broad impacts.”

Liu adds that “We also want to incorporate developed energy devices into a broad range of electronics to improve energy sustainability.”

The Link Foundation was established in 1953 by Edwin A. and Marion C. Link. Although active primarily in the fields of simulation and ocean exploration, Ed Link recognized the importance of energy toward the end of his life. Consistent with this, the Link Energy Fellowship has been awarded annually since it was established in 1984. (June 2021)