Electricity collected from the air could become the newest alternative energy source

Aug 25, 2010
Electricity collected from the air could become the newest alternative energy source
Powering homes with electricity collected from the air may be possible after scientists report solving a centuries old riddle about how moisture in the atmosphere becomes electrically charged. Credit: Martin Fischer

Imagine devices that capture electricity from the air ― much like solar cells capture sunlight ― and using them to light a house or recharge an electric car. Imagine using similar panels on the rooftops of buildings to prevent lightning before it forms. Strange as it may sound, scientists already are in the early stages of developing such devices, according to a report presented today at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

"Our research could pave the way for turning electricity from the atmosphere into an alternative energy source for the future," said study leader Fernando Galembeck, Ph.D. His research may help explain a 200-year-old scientific riddle about how electricity is produced and discharged in the atmosphere. "Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect," he maintained.

"If we know how electricity builds up and spreads in the atmosphere, we can also prevent death and damage caused by lightning strikes," Galembeck said, noting that lightning causes thousands of deaths and injuries worldwide and millions of dollars in property damage.

The notion of harnessing the power of electricity formed naturally has tantalized scientists for centuries. They noticed that sparks of static electricity formed as steam escaped from boilers. Workers who touched the steam even got painful electrical shocks. Famed inventor Nikola Tesla, for example, was among those who dreamed of capturing and using electricity from the air. It's the electricity formed, for instance, when water vapor collects on microscopic particles of dust and other material in the air. But until now, scientists lacked adequate knowledge about the processes involved in formation and release of electricity from water in the atmosphere, Galembeck said. He is with the University of Campinas in Campinas, SP, Brazil.

Scientists once believed that water droplets in the atmosphere were electrically neutral, and remained so even after coming into contact with the electrical charges on dust particles and droplets of other liquids. But new evidence suggested that water in the atmosphere really does pick up an electrical charge.

Galembeck and colleagues confirmed that idea, using laboratory experiments that simulated water's contact with dust particles in the air. They used tiny particles of silica and aluminum phosphate, both common airborne substances, showing that silica became more negatively charged in the presence of high humidity and aluminum phosphate became more positively charged. High humidity means high levels of water vapor in the air ― the vapor that condenses and becomes visible as "fog" on windows of air-conditioned cars and buildings on steamy summer days.

"This was clear evidence that water in the atmosphere can accumulate electrical charges and transfer them to other materials it comes into contact with," Galembeck explained. "We are calling this 'hygroelectricity,' meaning 'humidity electricity'."

In the future, he added, it may be possible to develop collectors, similar to the solar cells that collect the sunlight to produce electricity, to capture hygroelectricity and route it to homes and businesses. Just as solar cells work best in sunny areas of the world, hygroelectrical panels would work more efficiently in areas with high humidity, such as the northeastern and southeastern United States and the humid tropics.

Galembeck said that a similar approach might help prevent lightning from forming and striking. He envisioned placing hygroelectrical panels on top of buildings in regions that experience frequent thunderstorms. The panels would drain electricity out of the air, and prevent the building of electrical charge that is released in lightning. His research group already is testing metals to identify those with the greatest potential for use in capturing atmospheric and preventing lightning strikes.

"These are fascinating ideas that new studies by ourselves and by other scientific teams suggest are now possible," Galembeck said. "We certainly have a long way to go. But the benefits in the long range of harnessing hygroelectricity could be substantial."

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MaxwellsDemon
4.2 / 5 (5) Aug 25, 2010
A few years back I briefly researched harnessing lightning energy and learned that, although impressive visually, lightning discharges carry an insignificant amount of energy (high voltage, but a very small interval). So it seems unlikely that the energy of ambient atmospheric polarization would amount to much. They should've cited an optimum projection, because 'the benefits...could be substantial' isn't really saying anything substantial.

All the energy we could ever need is right below our feet in the mammoth thermal energy battery that is the Earth's interior. We just need to master accessing it.
jsa09
3.5 / 5 (6) Aug 25, 2010
@MaxwellsDemon

Probably all true. But can you imagine all those energy hungry people of the future? Sucking all the heat out of the planet digging ever deeper until we are sitting on a solid rock with no magnetic field?
Mayberry
3 / 5 (2) Aug 25, 2010
Too late - already invented by John Galt read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
nuge
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 25, 2010
This has been proposed for some time. Yes, only a fairly small amount of energy can be delivered by such a device. But it could deliver that energy continuously and with very little maintenance. Perfect for producing hydrogen from seawater.
holoman
4 / 5 (3) Aug 25, 2010
I agree the amount of energy captured would be
insufficient.

Maybe a better method would be to have long extended electrical cables 85 to 200 mi into the ionisphere where electron densities are significant having Kev to Tev energies that would use electromotive energy generated by earth rotation through the ionisphere essentially a short circuit to ground for infinite constant electron current energy capture.

http://en.wikiped...here.svg

DaveGee
5 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2010
This idea working or not sits as well with me as utilizing geothermal energy. Solar collection seems to have little to no real detrimental impact on the earth-system as whole... I'm not so sure the same can be said for geothermal and this new proposal.

With geothermal something just doesn't sit right with me when we're talking about removing heat from inside the earth. The increase in earth quakes also screams out - back off!

With this 'extraction of energy from the air', if we've learned anything we've learned nature doesn't usually do ANYTHING without a reason. If the air IS charged with usable and extractable energies I'm thinking that the planet might want/need/expect it to be there.

Hey I'm all for ridding our dependance on oil ASAP! However, I'm deathly afraid that we as a society might embrace alternative energies donning rose colored glasses and then be stuck with problems far worse than we have now.

If I've learned anything, it's that things can ALWAYS get worse.
TheQuietMan
5 / 5 (2) Aug 25, 2010
Nature doesn't have any reason, it just is. Energy is where you find it, the whole planet is awash with energy, the amount we actually use is microscopic with what is out there.

I doubt we'll get enough from the air to be really useful.

I agree things can always get worse, especially if we just sit on our duffs and do nothing.
robbor
3 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2010
"Maybe a better method would be to have long extended electrical cables 85 to 200 mi into the ionisphere where electron densities are significant" what about a satellite in orbit with a cable that hangs down into the atmosphere, catching static electricity and beaming it to earth.
robbor
not rated yet Aug 25, 2010
what if a satellite in orbit had a cable attached that hung down into the atmoshpere. Wouldn't it pick up huge amounts of static energy which then could be beamed to earth?
mrlewish
3.5 / 5 (4) Aug 25, 2010
Geothermal is one of the answers for clean energy. And no we could never use up the energy stored in the earth, not even a small fraction of it. It is just that immense.
plasticpower
2.7 / 5 (3) Aug 26, 2010
Yeah, such satellite would also fall to earth within a week after it used up all its on-board fuel trying to resist the drag of the atmosphere.
yyz
5 / 5 (4) Aug 26, 2010
"what if a satellite in orbit had a cable attached that hung down into the atmoshpere. Wouldn't it pick up huge amounts of static energy which then could be beamed to earth?"

Much work has gone into the study of energy producing space tethers over the years. Also, tether research has been carried out aboard the Space Shuttle and the ISS.

http://en.wikiped...c_tether

http://en.wikiped..._mission
holoman
4 / 5 (1) Aug 26, 2010
Filed patent on satellite that collects Kev-Tev electron energy to be transmitted by microwave to earth collection stations.

The electrons collected could not only be used to transmit microwave energy but a source for propulsion to maintain orbit in LEO.

The cable idea would be less costly and safer.
Djincs
1 / 5 (1) Aug 26, 2010
We all know how this can happen , we all have watched the "Stardust" film...
degojoey
2.7 / 5 (3) Aug 26, 2010
If fusion is a reality, why are we even wasting time on these ideas? They say in 50 years we will have our first fusion reactors, producing 500x the energy put in, with an exhaustible supply of fuel. We really should be dumping our time and effort where the future will be.. solar and fusion.
loboy
not rated yet Aug 26, 2010
@MaxwellsDemon

"A moderate thunderstorm generates several hundred megawatts of electrical power."

Please see:
http://hyperphysi...ng2.html

The major problem is storing the energy from a lightning strike. All that energy needs to be dumped into a massive capacitor bank. It is similar to how a strobe light or a camera flash works. The other problem is the erratic discharge of a lightning strike.
Javinator
3.4 / 5 (5) Aug 26, 2010
If fusion is a reality, why are we even wasting time on these ideas? They say in 50 years we will have our first fusion reactors, producing 500x the energy put in, with an exhaustible supply of fuel. We really should be dumping our time and effort where the future will be.. solar and fusion.


Because fusion is still an "if". Putting all your eggs in one basket is a bad idea.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Aug 26, 2010
A moderate thunderstorm generates several hundred megawatts of electrical power.
A million volts and 1 Amp is a mega watt. You would have a hard time running a CFL on that sort of energy, let alone using it as a power source.

Plus, you'd be shutting down one of the primary generators of Ozone, reducing the ozone layer.
El_Nose
1 / 5 (1) Aug 26, 2010
harness it until you find out that the electricity in the air served a purpose that was helping life sustain itself on the planet -- unlikely but possible

-please don't rate this statement --
loboy
not rated yet Aug 28, 2010
@Skeptic Heretic

A small CFL uses around 20 watts.
20 watts = 120 volts x 0.167 amps.

A megawatt is 1,000,000,000 watts.

The lightning strike happens in a less than a second. So it would light 50,000,000 CFLs for less than a second.
MaxwellsDemon
3 / 5 (2) Aug 28, 2010
@Ioboy
@MaxwellsDemon

"A moderate thunderstorm generates several hundred megawatts of electrical power."

That may be true Ioboy, but when gauging a power source you also need a time unit to arrive at the total energy. Because just citing the power rating is like saying 'a typical lightning storm will power a 500-megawatt laser.' Which doesn't mean much if you can't say -for how long- it will power that laser.
A megawatt is 1,000,000,000 watts.

Actually that's a gigawatt, a megawatt is 1,000,000 watts. But like I said, you need an interval. Here, check this out:
(continued)
MaxwellsDemon
not rated yet Aug 28, 2010
According to Northeastern University physicists Stephen Reucroft and John Swain, a lightning bolt carries a few million joules of energy, enough to power a 100-watt bulb for 5.5 hours

According to Dr. Martin A. Uman, co-director of the Lightning Research Laboratory at the University of Florida and a leading authority on lightning,[128] a single lighting strike, while fast and bright, contains very little energy, and dozens of lighting towers like those used in the system tested by AEH would need to operate five 100-watt light bulbs for the course of a year.

http://en.wikiped...g_energy
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (3) Aug 28, 2010
A moderate thunderstorm generates several hundred megawatts of electrical power.
A million volts and 1 Amp is a mega watt. You would have a hard time running a CFL on that sort of energy, let alone using it as a power source.

Plus, you'd be shutting down one of the primary generators of Ozone, reducing the ozone layer.


Any power you generate is going to have some effect on the environment. Even (enough) fusion is going to generate so much waste heat that the Earth will start to "shine" like the sun...talk about global warming.

We really need to stop worrying so much about WHETHER or not we're going to effect the environment, but instead how we're going to nullify or mitigate those effects we're most certainly going to have.
loboy
not rated yet Aug 28, 2010
@MaxwellsDemon

My bad. Got a little anxious with the zeroes.

I did state that it would happen in less than a second.
davidzaduk
5 / 5 (1) Aug 28, 2010
How will preventing lighting strikes affect the creation of ozone in the atmosphere
Starblade_Enkai
not rated yet Aug 29, 2010
Too late - already invented by John Galt read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.


LOL, I came in here to say this exact same thing!

Great Minds think alike huh?
stealthc
1 / 5 (1) Aug 29, 2010
Stopping lightning strikes from occurring would deplete the ozone, because lightning regenerates our ozone by producing o3 and o, then o+o=o2, so produces o3 & o2 from o2.

I think this guy is a lunatic for suggesting that we stop lightning from striking.
podizzle
5 / 5 (4) Aug 29, 2010
lot of misinformation here, let me clear things up... a lightning strike produces exactly 1.21 jiggawatts.
Starblade_Enkai
5 / 5 (1) Aug 30, 2010
I know I shouldn't do this, but...

lot of misinformation here, let me clear things up... a lightning strike produces exactly 1.21 jiggawatts.

Great Scott! :o
sender
not rated yet Aug 30, 2010
particle beam towards a space fountain system supported by balloons and satcomms which utilize gravity assist to harness and amplify the beam's kinetic potential.
SteveL
1 / 5 (2) Sep 01, 2010
A moderate thunderstorm generates several hundred megawatts of electrical power.
A million volts and 1 Amp is a mega watt. You would have a hard time running a CFL on that sort of energy, let alone using it as a power source.

Plus, you'd be shutting down one of the primary generators of Ozone, reducing the ozone layer.


Not just ozone, but the very soil nitrates that plants need to grow are created in large part from lightning. This idea of leaching the atmosphere of its charge is a bit short sighted - unless you just don't like eating.
Modernmystic
2 / 5 (4) Sep 01, 2010
A moderate thunderstorm generates several hundred megawatts of electrical power.
A million volts and 1 Amp is a mega watt. You would have a hard time running a CFL on that sort of energy, let alone using it as a power source.

Plus, you'd be shutting down one of the primary generators of Ozone, reducing the ozone layer.


Not just ozone, but the very soil nitrates that plants need to grow are created in large part from lightning. This idea of leaching the atmosphere of its charge is a bit short sighted - unless you just don't like eating.


Complete bunk, nitrates come from bacteria in the soil which produce them from nitrogen (ammonium).
SteveL
5 / 5 (1) Sep 02, 2010

Plus, you'd be shutting down one of the primary generators of Ozone, reducing the ozone layer.


Not just ozone, but the very soil nitrates that plants need to grow are created in large part from lightning. This idea of leaching the atmosphere of its charge is a bit short sighted - unless you just don't like eating.


Complete bunk, nitrates come from bacteria in the soil which produce them from nitrogen (ammonium).


Lighting is part of the cycle for producing HNO3 (nitric acid) - a plant nutrient. Yes, bacteria and algae are significant sources in the nitrogen fixation cycle. Decomposed animal wastes also return to the earth as nitrates. For much of the world commercial fertilizers are either too expensive or unavailable. The point is; this is a natural source of the nitrates that plants require - why mess with it?

http://www.elmhur...cle.html
RankineCycle
not rated yet Sep 22, 2010
I have an outdoor antenna for shortwave listening (a 150 foot long piece of wire in the air). I have a small neon bulb connected between it and ground to discharge static, and the bulb blinks often during rain, snow, thunder, etc. It's cool but of no use besides static protection.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that energy has quality - a measure known as entropy. A thunderstorm has a lot of energy. But it is extremely chaotic - high entropy. The techno-world of iPhones and HDTVs demands energy of utmost quality, highest order, and lowest entropy. Even "old faithful" coal and oil have to be "upgraded" in a power plant or engine before they are capable of being used for anything more than heating. In these cases the expense of tossing out the chaos and keeping the order is 66% or more of the energy being dumped as waste heat, either up the cooling towers or out the exhaust pipe.

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