Hydroelectric energy conversion of waste flows through hydro-electronic drag

Hydraulic energy is a key component of the global energy mix, yet there exists no practical way of harvesting it at small scales, from flows at low Reynolds number. This has triggered the search for alternative hydroelectric conversion methodologies, leading to unconventional proposals based on droplet triboelectricity, water evaporation, osmotic energy or flow-induced ionic Coulomb drag. Yet, these approaches systematically rely on ions as intermediate charge carriers, limiting the achievable power density. Here, we predict that the kinetic energy of small-scale “waste” flows can be directly and efficiently converted into electricity thanks to the hydro-electronic drag effect, by which an ion-free liquid induces an electronic current in the solid wall along which it flows. This effect originates in the fluctuation-induced coupling between fluid motion and electron transport.
We develop a non-equilibrium thermodynamic formalism to assess the efficiency of such hydroelectric energy conversion, dubbed hydronic energy. We find that hydronic energy conversion is analogous to thermoelectricity, with the efficiency being controlled by a dimensionless figure of merit. However, in contrast to its thermoelectric analogue, this figure of merit combines independently tunable parameters of the solid and the liquid, and can thus significantly exceed unity. Our findings suggest new strategies for blue energy harvesting without electrochemistry, and for waste flow mitigation in membrane-based filtration processes.