Date: Oct 17, 2020 Author: Reena Karasin Source: Greentown Labs (
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What if you could harness the air around you to power your cell phone? You'd never have to find a wall outlet, or dispose of a near-unrecyclable battery. You could power your most-used electronic in a truly renewable way.
It sounds incredible, even impossible--and when researchers stumbled onto the core of this revolutionary technology, no one could believe it.
Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have been studying a bacteria species called Geobacter, which has hairlike protein nanowires, for decades. One day, when a researcher turned off the power supply to some nanowires that were being tested as sensors, an electric current still showed on the meter.
"This was a completely serendipitous finding--no one expected this," says Steve Gold, CEO of Power For Humanity. "Basically, a thin film of nanowires can be made to somewhat magically produce a small electric current. The discovery led to more than a year of experiments to try to figure out what was going on. All of this was ultimately summarized and published in Nature in February of this year. The discovery is truly groundbreaking."
The proteins only need normal, ambient air for power generation, drawing on typical levels of humidity. Gold optioned the lab's technology, and started Power For Humanity earlier this year. He is joined by co-founders Alex Smith, a scientific expert who was doing his Ph.D. research in the UMass lab, and Charlie DiPietro, an experienced investor and entrepreneur. They quickly raised an initial round of investment, and the small team has already been joined by several world-class scientific and business advisors.
Power For Humanity is using its proprietary, science-fictionesque proteins to create Natural Power Units (NPUs), which could eventually either continuously charge or replace batteries in small portable devices. Over the next year, the startup will continue to experiment with the best arrangements of nanostructures and electrodes, and then begin device engineering.
These NPUs have significant climate impact potential. Even as we push to electrify our world, we are also grappling with batteries' negative environmental effects. Less than three percent of lithium-ion batteries are recycled, and the few facilities that do recycle these batteries can only recover a handful of elements, according to American Battery Metals Corporation. Sourcing battery metals can also be problematic, using 500,000 gallons of water per ton of lithium and sometimes releasing toxic chemicals, WIRED reports.
While the research indicates that the proteins are incredibly stable, if and when an NPU has to be disposed of, it is completely biodegradable.
"That's one of our primary goals," says Gold, "to make every component of our NPUs 100 percent biodegradable." The proteins are produced in non-toxic bacterial factories that are fueled by renewable feedstocks.
The three co-founders began Power For Humanity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While starting a company in this tumultuous time presented challenges, Gold believes it has also made advisers and partners generous with their time and help. More than ever, there is a shared need to do something purposeful, he explains.
Power For Humanity joined Greentown Labs in July, and the team was eager to become part of the community, according to Gold.
"As CEO of an early-stage tech company, one of the few things that I can control is the environment in which we work, and the people we surround ourselves with," he explains. "The Greentown team and community have exceeded our expectations in every way. We're proud to be members of the community, and to be developing our technology in Somerville, and I can say without a doubt that it's having a positive impact on our probability of success."