Collecting Electricity from Thin Air Might One Day Become Reality

lightning strike photo

Lightning shows us just how much electricity can accumulate in the atmosphere. Photo: Wikipedia, CC.
Ride the Lightning
It's still just a dream, but scientists are slowly getting us closer to the day when we might be able to collect electricity from thin air - or rather, humid air - in the atmosphere. They're not thinking of harnessing the power of lightning like in Back to the Future (where would you store such a massive influx of electricity?), but rather of collecting electricity from water vapor and dust particles. How would that work?

Photo: Wikipedia, CC.
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. (source)

The researchers even think that if this was used on a large enough scale, that it could reduce the number of lightning strikes over a certain region by draining the atmosphere of its electrical charge, something that could potential save many lives and avoid property damages.

Of course the effect of fewer lightning strikes would have to be studied, but if the effect is just localized, it would just shield densely populated areas and leave the rest of the planet the same.

This is just speculative technology for now, but one day it might be added to the list of renewable sources of energy like solar, wind, geothermal, etc.

Via Science Daily
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