alternative energy

Lightening the next esoteric form of Alternative Energy?


The Phenomenon

Lightning is generated in electrically charged storm systems. Clouds are created by the accumulation of moisture in the atmosphere, and can contain millions upon millions of water droplets and ice suspended in the air. These droplets collide with other moisture that is in the process of condensing as it rises. The importance of these collisions is that electrons are knocked from the rising moisture, resulting in a charge separation. The upper portion of the cloud is positively charged and the lower portion is negatively charged. The storm clouds become charged like giant capacitors. The air around the cloud allows current to flow to neutralize the charge separation. In most cases, this results in a discharge from the cloud to the ground, which is at a lower electric potential. Since lightning produces voltage from 20 to 40 kilovolts and current up to 3000 kiloamps, the question has been raised: can this natural source of power could be harnessed?  Since the process is natural, like wind or solar, it could be included as an alternative source of energy.

The Reality

The logistical problems involved in producing a usable form of electricity from lightning are significant. Thunderstorms are sporadic, and the lighting strikes generated tend to be random. The energy delivered in a lightning bolt is produced in one enormous blast in a split second.  To be usable, the electricity must be stored in a safe manner. The energy contained in a lightning bolt disperses as it travels toward the Earth, so a tower would only capture a small fraction of the bolt’s potential.

The Future

Despite the challenges, there is hope. The power of natural lightning was successfully used to charge a mobile phone in a worldwide first when Nokia partnered with scientists from the University of Southampton in the U.K. in a September 2013 study. The technology could potentially allow consumers to charge their devices in a sustainable matter.  If grid storage technologies advance to the point where they could be used in a grid application, this could be used to harness lightening at some point in the future.  The key is to begin to look to sources provided by nature for possible solutions to meet the energy demands of our society.