New Device Creates Electricity From Snowfall

'Snow is already charged, so we thought, why not bring another material with the opposite charge and extract the charge to create electricity?' Kichigin/Shutterstock

Behold, the world’s first device to create electricity from falling snow.

Engineers and chemists from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have developed the first snow-based energy harvester. At the moment, the amount of energy harnessed is pretty teeny and the technology is unlikely to be scaled up to become a snowy climate equivalent of solar panels. Nevertheless, the researchers believe it has some real-world applications, such as helping weather stations tick along during tough winter storms.

Described in the journal Nano Energy, the device simply consists of a thin and flexible sheet of plastic that works as a triboelectric nanogenerator, an energy-harvesting nanodevice that can harness a charge from static electricity. Snow is positively charged and gives up electrons, while silicone is negatively charged and accepts the electrons. So, as the snow lands on the silicone, a charge is produced and then captured.

Think of it as like rubbing a balloon against your hair to harness a small electrical charge, but on a really small scale.

"Snow is already charged, so we thought, why not bring another material with the opposite charge and extract the charge to create electricity?” co-author Maher El-Kady, a UCLA assistant researcher of chemistry and biochemistry, said in a statement.

“Static electricity occurs from the interaction of one material that captures electrons and another that gives up electrons,” added senior author Richard Kaner of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA.

“You separate the charges and create electricity out of essentially nothing.” 

This effect can output a power density of 0.2 milliwatts per square meter, and an open circuit voltage up to 8 volts. As a caveat, that’s a really small amount. You’d need a number of panels, covering several meters, just to light up an LED.  

So, what’s the use of this then? The device can also pick up on very subtle movements and could even be incorporated into wearable electronics used to monitor an athlete’s performance during winter sports.

It appears the most realistic use of this technology will be integrating it into weather stations in remote snowy locations, as the device is also capable of sensing snowfall, wind direction, and weather conditions, all while generating its own electricity.

“The device can work in remote areas because it provides its own power and does not need batteries,” Kaner concluded.

“It’s a very clever device – a weather station that can tell you how much snow is falling, the direction the snow is falling, and the direction and speed of the wind.”

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