Scientists Discover Water Evaporation Is Key Green Energy Source

Columbia University scientists may have discovered a new, more reliable renewable energy source in water evaporation. Further large-scale research is already on the horizon to study situations like weather-related effects.


May 24 2019, Updated 10:09 a.m. ET

Evaporation could soon join our growing list of renewable energy sources. And in no small way: In fact, new research from Columbia University suggests that energy generated from water evaporation could power a large portion of the United States. If proven to work on such a large scale, it could be a natural alternative that can we can count on any time of the day. That's right: Unlike the weather-related concerns many have with solar power, harvesting energy from water evaporation won't necessarily be damped by cloudy days.

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Based on lab data, Columbia University’s scientists believe that a capacity of 325 gigawatts are sitting in America’s lakes and reservoirs right now in the form of evaporation. For perspective, that’s enough power to give 70 percent of the continental US electricity. They’ve been able to develop an engine that controls humidity with a shutter that opens and closes. This makes bacterial spores bigger and smaller, and contractions can power a generator that creates the electricity.

Plenty of benefits exist for this evaporation source over other alternative sources. From the start, both sun and wind-powered energy can be limited. As we all know,  the sun isn’t able to reach all areas, is only available during the day, and clouds can hamper efficiency from solar panels. Wind is similar in reliability and location. And of course, both need to be optimized with battery storage.

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This energy-generating procedure can also save water from natural evaporation. Nearly half of water that traditionally evaporates from America’s bodies of water can be retained after generating power. According to Columbia’s news release, that equates to 25 trillion gallons of water, or one-fifth of total United States consumption annually.

“Evaporation comes with a natural battery," Ahmet-Hamdi Cavusoglu, a Columbia graduate student and one of the study’s authors, said in the release. "You can make it your main source of power and draw on solar and wind when they're available."

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Location still might be key for the evaporation process. This would be more beneficial to western states such as California and Arizona. Population increase will benefit from water savings, and warm climates would create more evaporation and higher power levels.

There is concern, however, about how this process could disrupt weather patterns. Why? First of all, ocean evaporation and moisture collected by the atmosphere controls this phenomenon, and on a large scale, how would this affect weather around the country in the future? Also, how much money would it cost to produce the new sustainable source, and how would affect the quality of water it’s working in?

Cavusoglu and the other researchers are looking to bring this process out of the laboratory and into lakes, reservoirs, and greenhouses. Further studies should present a clearer look at this potential renewable source.

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