22 October 2003

Electrokinetic Generation May Challenge Solar, Wind Power

by Kate Melville

A team of researchers in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta (U of A) has discovered a new way of generating electricity from flowing water. It may soon be possible to never have to charge up a cellular phone again instead, the phone could be fitted with a battery that uses pressurized water.

Research published today in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering reveals a new method of generating electric power by harnessing the natural electrokinetic properties of a liquid, such as ordinary tap water, when it is pumped through tiny microchannels. The research team in Edmonton, Canada, has created a new source of clean non-polluting electric power with a variety of possible uses, ranging from powering small electronic devices to contributing to a national power grid.

The research, led by U of A professors Daniel Kwok and Larry Kostiuk, started as a simple conversation between Kostiuk, a thermodynamicist, and Kwok, a nanofabrication researcher. With the assistance of two graduate students, the team was able to illuminate a light bulb by exploiting the coupling between electrokinetic phenomena and the hydrodynamics of liquid flow.

"This discovery has a huge number of possible applications," said Kostiuk. "It could be a new alternative energy source to rival wind and solar power although this would need huge bodies of water to work on a commercial scale. 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.

Dr. David T. Lynch, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, praised the team for its creativity. "The discovery of an entirely new way of producing power is an incredible fundamental research breakthrough that occurs only once in a lifetime. This groundbreaking discovery will earn these engineering researchers and the University of Alberta a place of prominence in scientific journals and textbooks for decades to come and may find significant applications in numerous commercial areas."