By Phoebe Dey, ExpressNews Staff
October 20, 2003 – What started as a simple conversation between two University of Alberta engineering professors has led to the discovery of a new way to harness electricity–from flowing tap water.
The U of A research, published by the Institute of Physics journal, Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, reveals a new method of generating electric power by exploiting the natural electrokinetic properties of a liquid such as ordinary tap water, by pumping fluids through tiny microchannels. A team of researchers and students, led by Dr. Daniel Kwok and Dr. Larry Kostiuk, has created a new source of clean, non-polluting electric power with a variety of possible uses, ranging from powering small electronic devices such as cell phones to contributing to a national power grid.
The project started soon after Kostiuk was appointed chair of the university’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. When Kostiuk made his rounds to learn what his colleagues were studying, he listened to Kwok describe his work with electrokinetics–the science of electrical charges in moving substances, such as water.
In that meeting Kwok explained how, when water travels over a surface, the ions that it is made up of “rub” against the solid, leaving the surface slightly charged. “Then Larry said to me, ‘well that sounds like a battery to me,’ and I just paused and then realized what he said,” said Kwok. “This shows the importance of interdisciplinary work – sometimes we focus so much on our research that we aren’t able to take a step back and see what others can see.”
Initial efforts at tapping the potential of the phenomenon generated such a minute amount of energy the task was thought “impossible,” said Jun Yang, a graduate student working towards his PhD in mechanical engineering who designed the experiment at Kwok’s request.
But Yang, who came to the U of A from the Beijing Institute of Technology two years ago, wanted to try again. The idea, he says, was magnificent.
Yang and Kwok exchanged ideas on ways to increase the amount of energy generated by increasing the number of channels they forced water through. The team, which also includes graduate student Fuzhi Lu, has been able to improve on the results detailed in their research paper, generating 20 times as much energy and illuminating LED lights.
A paper published in June, 1964 (J.F. Osterle, Journal of Applied Mechanics) addressed the broad concepts of the phenomenon but not its applications. However, Kostiuk and Kwok independently struck upon the notion and, with the assistance of Yang and Lu, developed the new technology.
“This new technology could provide an alternative energy source to rival wind and solar power, although this would need huge bodies of water to work on a commercial scale,” said Kostiuk. “Hydrocarbon fuels are still the best source of energy but they’re fast running out and so new options like this one could be vital in the future.
“This technology could provide a new power source for devices such as mobile phones or calculators which could be charged up by pumping water to high pressure.”
Although the power generated from a single channel is extremely small, millions of parallel channels can be used to increase the power output. More work will be needed to further understand this new means to produce power.
The environmental benefit of clean energy conversion using safe, renewable materials is motivating the team to explore how their prototype device may be developed into a battery for commercial use. The inventors are working with the U of A’s Technology Transfer Group (TTG) to develop a commercialization strategy for the work. A patent application has been filed by the university to obtain broad, early protection of the invention. The TTG is conducting an in-depth evaluation of the market opportunities.
The research was funded in part by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) grant. Dr. Kwok’s work is also supported by the Alberta Ingenuity Fund.
In addition, Kwok serves as a Canada Research Chair in Self-Assembled Monolayers at the U of A.
Related links – internal
Dr. Larry Kostiuk’s website: http://www.mece.ualberta.ca/staff/Kostiuk/Kostiuk_index.htm
Dr. Daniel Kwok’s website: http://www.mece.ualberta.ca/staff/dykwok.htm
The U of A Technology Transfer Group website: http://www.rgo.ualberta.ca/ILO/Tech_transfer/Tech_transfer_index.htm
Related links – external
The Institute of Physics website: http://www.iop.org
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada website:http://www.nserc.ca
The Alberta Ingenuity Fund website:http://www.albertaingenuity.ca