Researchers have designed a device that creates electricity from falling snow. The device is inexpensive, small, thin, and flexible like a sheet of plastic. It can work in remote areas because it provides its own power and does not need batteries. The device is also a weather station that can tell how much snow is falling, the direction the snow is falling, and the direction and speed of the wind.
The snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator, or snow TENG, generates charge through static electricity and produces energy from the exchange of electrons. When the charges are separated, it creates electricity out of essentially nothing.
Snow is positively charged and gives up electrons. Silicone — a synthetic rubber-like material 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, it produces a charge that the device captures, creating electricity. While snow gives up electrons, the performance of the device depends on the efficiency of the other material at extracting the electrons. After testing a large number of materials including aluminum foils and Teflon, it was found that silicone produces more charge than any other material.
When snow falls, solar panels often fail to operate. 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.
When embedded in shoes, 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. It also has the potential for identifying the main movement patterns used in cross-country skiing, which cannot be detected with a smart watch. It could also be embedded in shoes or clothing worn by firefighters and others who work in harsh environments.
The team used 3D printing to design the device, which has a layer of silicone and an electrode to capture the charge. Silicone is widely used in products such as lubricants, electrical wire insulation, and biomedical implants, and now has the potential for energy harvesting.