Sound is energy is motion whether in gasses, fluids or through solid materials it could be something worth pursuit.

A team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is on it with a new material made from crystals of zinc oxide that, when immersed in water, absorb vibrations and develop areas of strong negative and positive charge. These charges rip apart nearby water molecules, releasing hydrogen and oxygen gas.

Lead researcher Huifang Xu as quoted by Phil McKenna at NewScientist saying, “This is like a free lunch. You are getting energy from the environment just like solar cells capture energy from the sun.”

The material the team designed generates hydrogen using the new take on piezoelectric crystals. Piezoelectrics are a materials that generate a voltage when strained such as being bent or flexed, which are also being investigated as a way to generate electricity from movement.

So where is an abundance of free motion or movement?  Sound.  It’s just that sound doesn’t move molecules very much and the less mass moving the less energy involved.

Xu’s team designed crystals that are submerged in water so the charge they generate instead pulls apart water molecules to release hydrogen and oxygen gas, a mechanism Xu’s team is calling a ‘piezoelectrochemical’ effect. This a completely different take from flexing something for a bit of electrical charge.

Piezoelectrochemical Graphic. Click image for more info.

Xu and his colleagues grow thin microfibers of highly flexible zinc oxide crystals that when subjected to vibration, flex due to sound waves. The team has shown ultrasonic vibrations under water cause the fibers to bend between 5 and 10 degrees at each end, creating enough electrical field with a high enough voltage to split water and release oxygen and hydrogen. There’s a ‘how about that’ moment.

Jinhui Song of Georgia Tech University, also quoted by NewScientist explains because there is no need to wire in an in/out circuit the devices based on the new crystals could be simpler than those based on conventional dry piezoelectrics.  “It’s a good idea. They can reduce the complexity of the device.”

Song offers a cautionary note that submerged devices would not necessarily be more efficient. In principle, says Song, the energy generated by a material should be the same however it is deployed.  Yet the microfiber mechanics compared to current piezoelectric mechanics might offer some form of increase and further research to smaller scales may be worth investigation.

The advantage in device construction costs is intriguing.  Yet the oxygen and hydrogen separation process would need addressed at low cost as well. But there’s an abundance of motion about, even wind might be worth investigation for generating efficient ultrasonic energy.  If a system were cheap enough, the efficiency required wouldn’t be so high.

The team’s research was published on the web March 2nd at The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters. In the supporting documentation pdf a zinc oxide sample is shown at a remarkable 18% efficiency. This writer suspects the press release would have gotten much more attention if this point were noticed.

There is potential here when considering the energy already just moving around.


6 Comments so far

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