A fascinating report presented today at a science meeting in Boston describes technology that could capture large amounts of electrical energy from the air, energy that is normally manifest as lightning.
A research group from the University of Campinas (Brazil) led by Fernando Galembeck thinks this air-based power source can be harnessed into a significant supply of electricity for a variety of consumers and lessen the dangers of lightening. “Our research could pave the way for turning electricity from the atmosphere into an alternative energy source for the future,” says Galembeck. “If we know how electricity builds up and spreads in the atmosphere, we can also prevent death and damage caused by lightning strikes.” He delivered the report at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.
Electricity in the air is formed when water vapor collects on microscopic particles of dust and other airborne materials. Galembeck has been studing electricity in the air for some time.
Recently, his group used particles of silica and aluminum phosphate, both common in the atmosphere, and according to Galembeck, found that that silica becomes negatively charged in high humidity and aluminum phosphate becomes more positively charged. They also found “clear evidence that water in the atmosphere can accumulate electrical charges and transfer them to other materials it comes into contact with,” says Galembeck. “We are calling this ‘hygroelectricity,’ meaning ‘humidity electricity’.”
Some of the groups work is discussed in a letter in a recent edition of Langmuir.
Galembeck describes the concept of special photovoltaic-like collectors that could capture hygroelectricity and route it to homes and businesses. He adds that hygroelectrical panels would best in geographic regions with high humidity.
His group also envisions using the panels to prevent the formation of lightning. They believe that hygroelectrical panels on top of buildings could drain electricity out of the air, and prevent the building of electrical charge that is released in lightning.
He says the next step is to find materials with the greatest potential for use.
“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.”