New research into how lightning forms has started yielding what might be the first opening into a new source of alternative energy.
According to a report presented at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society( ACS), scientists are already in the early stages of developing devices that could capture electricity from the very air around us, much like solar panels collect energy from the sun.
“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. “Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect.”
Galembeck’s research is stepping in to try and solve a 200 year old scientific riddle about how electricity is produced and discharged in the atmosphere. The most common example of this electricity build up is in the form of lightning strikes, and Galembeck believes that his research may also provide ways in which danger from lightning strikes can be reduced.
“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.
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, said the ACS release. But new evidence suggested that water in the atmosphere really does pick up an electrical charge.
Using tiny particles of silica and aluminum phosphate, which are both common airborne particles, Galembeck and colleagues confirmed this idea by showing that the silica became more negatively charged in the presence of high humidity and aluminum phosphate became more positively charged.
“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’.”
Galembeck hopes that in the future collectors for hygroelectricity will be developed to collect and capture the electricity from the atmosphere. And just as solar panels work best in sunny areas of the world, hygroelectricity panels would work most efficiently in those areas of the world with high humidity.
Galembeck also hopes that these hygroelectric panels would be able to prevent lightning from striking by draining the surrounding atmosphere of, for example, a tall building, of all the electricity and thus minimizing the danger of electric storms.
“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.”