London – The battery of the future could be powered by nothing but water, after a breakthrough by two Canadian scientists who have discovered an entirely new way to generate electricity – the first since 1839.

Initial applications could be cellphones and other electronic devices that now use rechargeable batteries, but Larry Kostiuk and Daniel Kwok, researchers at the University of Alberta who made the discovery, think that in time it could even be used for full-scale power generation.

When the “water battery” ran down, you would simply pump it up, perhaps with your hands. It would be non-polluting and non-toxic and completely portable. And it could be ready for commercial application before the end of the decade.

The discovery, which uses the movement of water through microscopic channels to generate electricity – and even in a laboratory set-up can power an LED, using just a hand-operated syringe, some water, and a piece of glass 1cm in diameter and three millimeters long – is a breakthrough application of nanotechnology, the science of molecule-sized artifacts.

‘How long did we work on it? Oh boy, it’s embarrassing’

It was also a complete accident, caused by Kostiuk’s decision after he was appointed the head of the university’s department of engineering to go out and discover what his colleagues were actually doing.

One of those was Daniel Kwok, who was working in the abstruse-sounding field of nano-fabrication.

“How long did we work on it? Oh boy, it’s embarrassing,” said Kostiuk, who normally works in the field of combustion chemistry. “It’s not like we labored for years. One afternoon I went to visit Daniel, and he was explaining what he did in electrokinetics” – the science of electrical charge in moving substances such as water.

Kwok explained how, when water travels over a surface, the ions that it is made up of “rub” against the solid. That leaves the surface slightly charged.

“So I said, ‘If you have separated the charges, then it looks a lot to me like a battery’,” recalled Kostiuk. At which Kwok started looking at his work with new eyes.

“We got about 10 volts and one milli-amp out of a piece of glass with 10 000 microchannels,” said Kwok. “Right now we can power an LED with no problem, using just a syringe with some water that we push over the channels.” The key thing about the work, which is published on Monday by the Institute of Physics journal, Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, is that it would simply have been impossible to develop and exploit 20 years or so ago.

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And might it one day power everything, including our homes? “You’d need a really big area, like a coastal region,” said Kostiuk. “But then again, I guess those are available, aren’t they?” – The Independent.

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