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Harness lightning for energy, thanks to high humidity?

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Why do the roiling, black clouds of a thunderstorm produce lightning? Ben Franklin and others helped prove that such lightning was discharged electricity, but what generates that electricity in such prodigious quantities? After all, storms generate millions of lightning bolts around the globe every year—even volcanoes can get in on the act as the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökull did when photographs captured bolts of blue in the ash cloud.

Perhaps surprisingly, scientists still debate how exactly lightning forms; theories range from colliding slush and ice particles in convective clouds to, more speculatively, a rain of charged solar particles seeding the skies with electrical charge. Or perhaps  the uncertainty about lightning formation is not surprising, given all that remains unknown about clouds and the perils of studying a storm—an electrical discharge can deliver millions of joules of energy in milliseconds.

But Brazilian researchers claim that their lab experiments imply that the water droplets that make up such storms can carry charge—an overturning of decades of scientific understanding that such water droplets must be electrically neutral. Specifically, chemists led by Fernando Galembeck of the University of Campinas found that when electrically isolated metals were exposed to high humidity—lots and lots of tiny water droplets known as vapor—the metals gained a small negative charge.

The same holds true for many other metals, according to Galembeck’s presentation at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston on August 25—a phenomenon they’ve dubbed hygroelectricity, or humid electricity. "My colleagues and I found that common metals—aluminum, stainless steel and others—acquire charge when they are electrically isolated and exposed to humid air," he says. "This is an extension to previously published results showing that insulators acquire charge under humid air. Thus, air is a charge reservoir."

The finding would seem to confirm anecdotes from the 19th century of workers literally shocked—rather than scalded—by steam. And it might explain how enough charge builds up for lightning, Galembeck argues.

The scientists envision devices to harness this charge out of thick (with water vapor) air—a metal piece, like a lightning rod, connected to one pole of a capacitor, a device for separating and storing electric charge. The other pole of the capacitor is grounded. Expose the metal to high humidity (perhaps within a shielded box) and harvest voltage. "If this could be done safely, it would allow us to have better control of thunderstorms," Galembeck says, envisioning a renewable energy source from the humid air of the tropics and mid-latitudes.

Unfortunately, the finding violates the principle of electric neutrality, in which the differently charged molecules of an electrolyte like water cancel out. And although geophysicists and other atmospheric scientists may not know all the details of how lightning forms, they do have a general sense, and hygroelectricity seems to ignore what is largely understood. "It is utter nonsense," says atmospheric physicist William Beasley of the University of Oklahoma, a lightning researcher. "All seriously considered mechanisms for electrification of thunderstorms that can lead to the kind of electric fields that are required for lightning involve convection and rebounding collisions between graupel [a slush ball] and ice particles in convective storms."

Similar efforts to capture the electricity in a lightning bolt have failed, most recently, Alternate Energy Holdings’s would-be lightning capture tower outside Houston. The wired tower never worked. "This concept has been disproven many times over," Beasley notes. What’s more, the amount of energy in a lightning bolt—never mind its crackling electric grandeur—is but a fraction of the amount of energy required to run even one 100-watt lightbulb, which uses 100 joules every second, for a day.

But taming lightning is a prospect that has tempted experimenters since at least the Olympian thunderbolts of Zeus. Of course, the vast majority of the energy is in the storm itself—hurricanes, for example, have the heat energy of 10,000 nuclear bombs. Capturing that energy might prove frazzling.

Image: Eyjafjallajökull eruption and the lightning it caused. © Marco Fulle (Stromboli Online) / NASA

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  1. 1. dbtinc 4:32 pm 08/26/2010

    any theories on "white lightening?"

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  2. 2. conservit 5:30 pm 08/26/2010

    I think the energy comparison is mistaken. One reference suggests a lightening strike contains about 1 billion joules which would keep a 100 watt bulb burning for 120 days.

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  3. 3. TTLG 9:22 pm 08/26/2010

    Wikipedia also states that the average lightning bolt contains about 500 million joules, which would power a 100W bulb for many days. But as an EE, I am inclined to agree that it is probably not possible to recover more than a tiny fraction of that in practice. However, the idea of collecting the energy before it is triggered into a lightning bolt sounds like it has possibilities, at least in an area which has frequent storms.

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  4. 4. JamesDavis 9:30 pm 08/26/2010

    What about heat lightening, when there are no clouds in the sky. Would you need all those parlor tricks to capture it?

    Now, "dbtinc", we hillbillies have already captured that "white lightening". We drink it on a daily base.

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 4:25 am 08/27/2010

    I don’t know about the requirement for water vapor, but it seems that the build up of atmospheric charges is commonly produced by enormous volumes of gaseous molecules flowing in opposition to other volumes of gaseous molecules, as found in rising thunderheads, volcanic eruptions, etc.

    While lightning is almost continuously being discharged somewhere around the Earth, it seems unlikely that equipment required to capture lightning’s energy before it is discharged could be positioned to capture any significant amount.

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 5:48 am 08/27/2010

    JamesDavis – Heat lightning is simply so distant that the thunder cannot be heard. Locally, it’s the same as any other thunderstorm.

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  7. 7. Brian Bellingham 6:29 am 08/27/2010

    What about electroconductive concrete as a large capasitors

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  8. 8. Brian Bellingham 6:37 am 08/27/2010

    When using electroconductive concrete as a heating element it will work at tempretures up to 350 centegrade because it works as a capasitor

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  9. 9. TTLG 3:42 pm 08/27/2010

    Brian Bellingham: Like most ideas about harnessing lightning, this sounds good on the surface, but the problems mount up quickly. First of all, the power of the bolts varies by a huge amount. So you have to design your system to handle the biggest ones, but mostly you will be hit with small ones. So the temperature you are dealing with will be much lower, so the efficiency of the system will be lower. (I assume you intend the concrete to be used as a heat capacitor, not an electrical capacitor). The amount of heat deposited into your concrete will increase with electrical resistance, but if the resistance is too high the lighting will not strike there, but go for a lower resistance path. So you have to keep the resistance low, which will reduce the amount of energy you can pull out.

    Then there is the problem of keeping the heat from leaking out. The electrical conductors getting the lightning to the concrete will also be good heat conductors, so they will tend to let the heat escape. Then you have to get the heat to your heat engine. Again, moving the heat with an electrical insulator (you don’t want the lightning striking your engine!) is not easy. And so on.

    After thinking about this topic more, I think that the most efficient approach is to ignore the electrical charge and go after the cause of it: use windmills to capture the wind energy. After all, I suspect that only a very tiny percentage of the wind energy gets converted to electrical charge, so the energy captured would be tiny compared to that captured from the wind itself.

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  10. 10. jack.123 7:24 pm 08/27/2010

    Catching lightning’s energy in a pond surrounded by ceramic liner on all sides is infact possible with the pond becoming a giant capacitor..We see this every time it strikes a lake where the energy is dissipated through the water to the ground beneath.This is simply an engineering problem that should have been solved long ago.As long as we continue to believe it is impossible it will remain so.

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  11. 11. jtdwyer 8:28 pm 08/27/2010

    jack.123 – Yeah, but the biggest problem would be capturing a significant portion of the energy discharges, which are generally distributed around the globe.

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  12. 12. Quinn the Eskimo 1:26 am 08/28/2010

    Anyone given any thot to what this lightning capture could do to your iPod or Lappy?

    Windows7 my sparky butt. Windows Infinity and Beyond! (Sorry Buzz.)

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  13. 13. ennui 2:28 am 08/28/2010

    In 1967, I realized that these big spheres under a Flying Saucer were Monopole HV Generators.
    Then I figured out what was inside them.
    I did not need a sphere to get the effect of levitation or propulsion.
    When I used the Monopole HV generator for the first time, I blew a power transformer on a pole up 100 feet away from my basement workshop and got the Mother of all pokes from 150,000 volts.
    I zapped my TV and HiFi and those of my neigbors all around.
    Being one of these "Good Neighbors" of wich you only read in funny romans, I fixed them all for free.
    Luckily the Power Company blamed a squirrel, whose remains had been found, well cooked, in the ruins.
    Believing the Power Company, I upped the experiment by a factor of three, in the "sticks".
    I attracted a lightning stroke out of the blue sky with only 4 watt (estimated), it scared the daylights out of me and some rough looking farmdogs, that had just arrived to look me over.
    It set fire to the tree under wich I was parked and the dogs were instantly tranformed into the fastest whippets you have ever seen on their way back to the farm…
    That is when I realized that Tesla must have used something like it to power his electric Pierce Arrow Car in 1931.
    I am now working to develop the safe limits of the monopole HV Generator to power cars and homes (and aircraft?).

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  14. 14. tichead 11:00 am 08/28/2010

    Crispy critters, scalded mutts, and burning bushes… Dude, you’re scaring me. Your experiments are big time environmental hazards. Take it out to the desert, the Sahara, not the Sonoran.

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  15. 15. ennui 11:26 am 08/28/2010

    Donot worry tichead,
    When I have it properly working you will be using it unless you have oil stock or "work" vor Nasa.

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  16. 16. focalist 8:33 am 08/29/2010

    You’ll have to excuse folks (including admittedly me) for not putting a lot of credence into what you are taking about, ennui.. and starting off with terms like "flying saucers" with this group- well I’m sure it will incite some funny responses but not a lot of info.

    Truly, I find the idea of things like zero point energy, cold fusion, and other discoveries (things like your project) fascinating… and I do believe it is VERY possible that some lone researcher someday might just get their theory right- and nearly "free" limitless energy will be born. The problem at the moment is, there’s people claiming to have had success (like yourself) but then there’s no data to back it up. It leave us, the readers, ready to doubt almost any claim up front.

    Throw us a bone. I’m not ready to completely write you off as just another dreamer- but you have to give us, a fairly educated and intelligent group compared to the average bear- a bit more in terms of "this makes UFO’s fly, so I built one" and "Nicky must have had one of these to make his car go".

    General operating principles, block design… something?


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  17. 17. Johnay 12:12 pm 08/29/2010

    An infinite number of monkeys in an infinite number of garages will eventually solve all engineering problems.

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  18. 18. llewellyn 7:18 pm 08/29/2010

    Please google Lord Kelvin’s water drop electrostatic generator.
    Truly shocking results!

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  19. 19. ennui 11:34 pm 08/29/2010

    Focalist, did you take the trouble to read Patent 4,095,162?
    When I got it, my US Patent Lawyer, Mr. Farkas told me that Dr Kahn of the Hudson Institute had told him that the invention had been evaluated at $600 Billion if the USA would have it before Russia. When I suggested Nasa to use it, the Propulsion Engineers were: "Not Interested!"
    Who would need them if a Shuttle did not need rockets, by come off the ground VTOL and fly with a constant acceleration of ONE G to the ISS in one hour, to the Moon in a few hours and Mars inside one day?
    A shuttle, that would, with the Crew, be protected by a inherent forcefield from Space Debris and radiation?
    No way were they interested in that!
    After the Space Disasters they decided to experiment with the circuitry anyway, did not contact me like I had urged, used the setting of an E-Bomb (one of the hundreds of applications) instead that one of propulsion and caused another disaster: The Big Black-out of 2003.
    Then they advised Nasa that the system was not suitable for Space Travel.
    Both Professional Engineers that I asked to be witness for the patent application had first a good laugh because the basic system is a practical application of the theoretical Faraday Problem with the two concentric spheres and that was deemed impossible to do since 1850.
    One was the Chief Engineer of Philco in Toronto.
    His comment: "My God, you found it!"
    "My God why did I not think about that?"
    Then he told me that he had worked from 1937 till 1941 on Hitler’s Flying Disc that never came of the ground.
    "My God , why did I not think about that before?"
    He has many patents based on the gas tube.
    I found that I did not need a sphere to get the effect.
    A glass tube containing neon or argon gas. The glass tube had aluminum foil on the outside.
    Whe I fired it, I had a 2-terminal capacitor, the gas , glass insulator and the aluminum foil.
    I charged that capacitor up to 6000 volts.
    Then I turned the light off, changed it into a 1-terminal capacitor and generated 150,000 volts.
    At that time there was not too much transistorized equipment.
    Now I could zap all the computers and cell-phones around.
    I thought: "A good thing too, if Hitler had had this, not one Allied Aircraft would have returned home after it crossed in German controlled airspace.
    I did not explain the "tapping of power out of the aether" system, as I realized that it worth a bit more than $600 Billion. It can be used to power homes, cars etc
    Do have a nice day..

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  20. 20. ennui 12:04 am 08/30/2010

    Well focalist, see if you can read patent 4,095,162.
    The basis of gravity control. It was evaluated at $600 Billion by the Hudson Institute, if the USA would have it before Russia when I invented it. Nasa Propulsion Engineers were "not interested", so now it will probably go to Russia and/or India.
    The basic Monopole (these big spheres under a Flying Saucer ) are working at the principle of Faraday’s theoretical problem.
    As it was deemed impossible to do in practice I had my share of laughs.

    You now the problem"
    Two metal concentric spheres do not touch and form a capacitor C. This one is charged up to a potential V.
    Then the outside sphere is removed. The remaining sphere is a One Terminal Capacitor c. The potential on this sphere is momentarily C/c x V.
    Difficult to do iwth spheres nobody seems to have succeeded in doing it.
    What is inside these spheres of a Flying Saucer?
    A few glass tubes filled with an ionizeable gas like neon or argon.
    They are enveloped by metal (I used aluminum foil).
    The foil is connected to the sphere.
    As in a conductor no charge can exist it goes to the outside. The sphere becomes the One Terminal Capacitor.
    That is used for levitation, propulsion and the powering system (which I have to patent separately).
    One of my Witnesses, required for the patent application was a Chief Engineer for Philco.
    After I explained it while he was readingng his head and smiling because he knew it could not be done and came to the end, he said:
    "My God, you found it!"
    "My God , why did I not think about that?"
    He took me to lunch, where i explaine the many applications this invention had (I found hundreds of them!)
    Then he told me that he had worked on Hitler’s Flying Disc which never came off the ground.
    My God, why did I not think about that?"
    I thought: "A good thing too, if Hitler had had that invention, not one Allied Aircraft would have returned home after it crossed into German controlled Airspace.!"
    Hiler would have won the war with that invention alone.
    Hitler had been told that the secret of the Vimana (read about it in the Veeda) would be found on his birthday, April 20 and that it would come from a snall town in Holland, called DeGraaff. I was born in that town and found it on April 20, 1967. It was not for him. It should have been for the USA but that is past history now.
    Have a nice day.

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  21. 21. guenthpw 6:25 pm 08/30/2010


    According to my understanding and web definitions, ‘Heat Lightning’ is "bright flashes of light near the horizon without thunder (especially on hot evenings); usually attributed to distant lightning that is reflected by clouds".

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  22. 22. guenthpw 6:27 pm 08/30/2010

    According to ‘Web Definitions’, White Lightning is "bright flashes of light near the horizon without thunder (especially on hot evenings); usually attributed to distant lightning that is reflected by clouds".

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  23. 23. guenthpw 6:33 pm 08/30/2010

    jack.123, I have spent all my life as an electrical engineer trying to figure a practicable way to capture the energy in lightning. I have come up with many ways to do it. But practicable? I doubt it. I still think it might be possible, but I sure wish I knew how.

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  24. 24. guenthpw 6:35 pm 08/30/2010

    James Davis,

    Web definitions states: White Lightning is "bright flashes of light near the horizon without thunder (especially on hot evenings); usually attributed to distant lightning that is reflected by clouds".

    Link to this
  25. 25. moonkoon 12:10 pm 08/31/2010

    The Brazilian researchers claim that a metal plate can develop a charge (collect energy) when exposed to humid air, that is, stationary humid air.
    Presumably they can repeatedly demonstrate this effect and confirm it is due to the humidity by showing that the energy buildup on the plate doesn’t occur in dry air, all other conditions being equal, etc.

    But William says, <i>"It is utter nonsense …"</i>. He says the energizing process involves <i>"… convection and rebounding collisions between graupel [a slush ball] and ice particles …</i>.

    Perhaps some of the contradiction can be resolved by speculating that the hygroelectric effect, i.e. the energizing of the metal plate, is not so much an energy collection process (whereby the plate simply harvests electrical energy from the humid air), but an energy conversion process. Similar to the current theory, which also posits a conversion process whereby a ‘kinetic to electric’ alchemy occurs…, where some of the kinetic energy (derived originally from the capture of photon energy) of the moving atmospheric mass is said to be converted into electrical energy in the storm cell (which in turn is basically a big battery/capacitor that can utilize atmospheric kinetic energy to charge itself). By this process the sun’s energy is said to be concentrated in the storm cell in such density and quantity that it periodically discharges some of that energy via dielectric breakdown to the surrounding environment as negative or positive lightning.

    If the hygroelectric effect is also a conversion process (as opposed to a harvesting of existing electrical energy in the surrounding humid air), then the humid air would be the facilitator, the catalyst (the hygroelectric equivalent of the chloroplast or the fuel cell or the photo-electric diode) of the conversion process rather than the source of the energy. A source that can be detected by the hygroelectric effect, but which as yet, remains to be identified? Perhaps? :-) The Brazilians may have detected a previously unnoticed type of energy. Something like the Aether or dark energy would be good candidates for the source of the input into the conversion process. Maybe it’s a big discovery. :-)
    On the other hand, maybe the source, if there is one, is something more mundane, something we already know about, like those cosmic rays or even heat energy. Whatever, more investigation is called for. :-)

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  26. 26. Brian Bellingham 12:24 pm 09/2/2010

    TTLG the concrete to be used as a electricial capasitor I canmake the resistivity down to 10-3ohms m2

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  27. 27. llewellyn 8:13 pm 09/2/2010

    After careful research involving many episodes of imbibing white lightening, I can report with great confidence that white lightening involves evil spirits.
    l snickers and snorts.

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