- Harnessing Energy from the Air
- A team of scientists is working to harness hygroelectricity, a kind of energy found in humid air. The research could also help prevent lightning from striking buildings and people.
Devices that capture electricity from the air—much like how solar cells collect energy from the sun—might be the next trend in alternative energy. Similar devices could also be used to protect buildings and people from the shock of lightning striking. A team of researchers from University of Campinas, Brazil, recently presented these and other exciting findings 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," wrote study leader Fernando Galembeck, Ph.D., in an ACS press release. "Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect."
For centuries, scientists have been fascinated with the energy found in the air and atmosphere, such as the sparks of static electricity that form in the steam escaping from boilers. Nikola Tesla, the famous inventor and rival of Thomas Edison, dreamed of capturing electricity from and transmitting energy through the air. Indeed, electricity does form when water vapor collects on microscopic particles of dust and other airborne materials. But until now, scientists lacked enough understanding of this energy to harness it.
Historically, scientists theorized that atmospheric water droplets were electrically neutral and remained so even after coming into contact with charged particles. New evidence suggests, however, that water actually does pick up a charge.
In laboratory experiments, the Brazilian scientists confirmed this phenomenon. Using particles of silica and aluminum phosphate—two materials common in the air—the team demonstrated that, in humid conditions, silica becomes more negatively charged and aluminum phosphate 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.'"
The scientists envision building solar-cell-like collectors to harness the hygroelectricity and direct it to houses and offices. Just like photovoltaic cells work best in sunny places, the hygroelectrical panels would work best in humid environments, like the tropics and the eastern United States.
Another possible application of the technology could be the prevention of lightning from striking buildings. Placing hygroelectrical panels onto buildings in areas that experience frequent thunder storms would drain electricity out of the air, thereby preventing the shock emitted by lightning.
"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. Lightning strikes hundreds of people each year and damages many buildings.
The research team is already testing possible metals for use in hygroelectrical devices.
"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."