The farther you get from the equator, the less effective solar panels become at reliably generating power all year round. And it’s not just the shorter spans of sunlight during the winter months that are a problem; even a light dusting of snow can render solar panels ineffective. As a result of global warming, winters are only going to get more severe, but there’s at least one silver lining as researchers from UCLA have come up with a way to harness electricity from all that snow.
The technology they developed is called a snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator (or snow TENG, for short) which generates energy from the exchange of electrons. If you’ve ever received a nasty shock when touching a metal door handle, you’ve already experienced the science at work here. As it falls towards earth, snowflakes are positively charged and ready to give up electrons. In a way, it’s almost free energy ready for the taking, so after testing countless materials with an opposite charge, the UCLA researchers (working with collaborators from the University of Toronto, McMaster University, and the University of Connecticut) found that the negative charge of silicone made it most effective for harvesting electrons when it came into contact with snowflakes.
Details about the device they created were shared in a paper published in the Nano Energy journal, but it can be 3D-printed on the cheap given how accessible silicone is—for five bucks you can buy a spray can of it at the hardware store as a lubricant. In addition to silicone, a non-metal electrode is used, which results in the triboelectric generator being flexible, stretchable, and extremely durable.
Its creators believe it could be integrated into solar panel arrays so that when blanketed with snow in the winter months, they could continue to generate power. But the triboelectric generator has other potential uses too. Since it doesn’t require batteries or charging, it could be used to create cheap, self-powered weather stations that could report back snowy conditions and how much has accumulated. It could also improve activity trackers used by athletes competing in winter sports, allowing the movements of individual skis to be tracked and recorded which would provide valuable insights for athletes as they train to perfect their form.