It’s been a matter of debate for centuries. How exactly do electrical charges form in the air and cause atmospheric phenomena such as lightning? Until now, scientists believed that water in the air remained electrically neutral, even when coming into contact with the tiny particles of dust pervading natural air supply, but new research coming out of Brazil suggests that water does in fact pick up an electric charge, and that this charge could be harnessed in high-humidity climates as another alternative energy source.
Similarly to solar cells, panels could be placed on rooftops that capture this electrical charge as it strikes the device’s surface. That charge could then be used to power a home or charge an electric car. It could also help prevent death and damage from lightning strikes by reducing the amount of electrical charge in the air around people and buildings.
“Our research could pave the way for turning electricity from the atmosphere into an alternative energy source for the future,” explains Fernando Galembeck, Ph.D., lead researcher on a study performed at the University of Campinas in Brazil. “If we know how electricity builds up and spreads in the atmosphere, we can also prevent death and damage caused by lightning strikes.”
Galembeck discovered through lab experiments that when water droplets in the air come into contact with silica and aluminum phosphate, both common substances in air, the silica became more negatively charged while the aluminum phosphate picked up a positive charge. This phenomenon occurred when the substances were subjected to air with a high humidity content, i.e. higher presence of water vapor. This research confirmed that water can indeed pick up an electrical charge in the air and transfer it to other substances.
Therefore, it may be possible, according to Galembeck, to create “hygroelectric” devices, such as the panels alluded to above, that can harness this electrical energy and channel it for use within a home or other building. The ideal locations for such technology would obviously be areas with exceptionally humid climates like the tropics, or more locally, the southeastern and northeastern United States, where thunderstorms and the electrically-charged lightning that comes along with them are a common occurrence.
This research is quite new and any development of a hygroelectric (humidity electricity) panel is naught more than a concept. But Galembeck, his team, and other researchers around the world are already working to develop just such a device.
Could lightning, or more accurately, electrically charged particles in water vapor be our next renewable resource? Who knows for sure… but this discovery made in Brazil is important, if for no other reason than that it solves a riddle puzzling scientists for more than 200 years. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin’s legendary kite-and-key discovery of electricity will someday lead to our harnessing of that lightning-born power.