Fernando Galembeck, Ph.D. says 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.”

Should Galembeck get it right, 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 might be possible.  Scientists already are in the early stages of developing such devices, according to a report presented 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 Galembeck. “If we know how electricity builds up and spreads in the atmosphere, we can also prevent death and damage caused by lightning strikes,” noting that lightning causes thousands of deaths and injuries worldwide and millions of dollars in property damage.  There’s a bunch of power up there for the taking if processes can be built for collection.

An Intense Lightning Strike Over Texas. Click image for the largest view.

The hope of harnessing the power of electricity formed naturally has tantalized scientists for centuries.  Famed inventor Nikola Tesla was among those who dreamed of capturing and using electricity from the air.  Sparks of static electricity formed as steam escaped from boilers. Workers who touched the steam even got painful electrical shocks.  Carpeting and shuffling feet can yield a shock at the faucet.

In the atmosphere electricity forms 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.  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 a PhD is with University of Campinas in Campinas, SP, Brazil and his 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.

Galembeck explains, “This was clear evidence that water in the atmosphere can accumulate electrical charges and transfer them to other materials it comes into contact with. We are calling this ‘hygroelectricity,’ meaning ‘humidity electricity’.”
In the future, Galembeck believes, 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.

Stretching the idea further, 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 electricity 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.”

A little simple observation illuminates the problem.  Moving air with high humidity seems to be the source.  Add in the effects of a thunderstorm and the energy gets concentrated until the atmosphere is saturated and the electrical potential grounds out – in a flash of light and clap of thunder.  The energy is a huge discharge without precise locating beforehand.

On the other hand the amount of electricity in the moist moving air is very thinly spread about.  A means to concentrate or discern the available potential – which might be quite small – needs an engineering feat of great innovation.  The power is out there, no doubt, collecting seems to be the goal.

It doesn’t seem that Galembeck and the colleagues have much new, but the understanding is growing.  What a collector might look like is purely imaginary. As far as this writer knows no functioning collector exists today.  But that doesn’t mean one can’t be designed.

The potential might be significant if a collector can be designed and return on its investment. Today that’s out there.  But if the past fifty years have made anything at all clear “out there” can be very soon indeed.  A little breeze on a hot humid day that a collector could use to power a home would cover a great deal of peak electrical demand.  It’s an idea well worth the imagineering.


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  1. Heat Your Home With Less Gas or Oil | Home Made Recipes on September 1, 2010 1:19 AM

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