Lightning, How’s That for Alternative?

We all know that lightning bolts carry massive amounts of energy. Just think about how loud thunder is. What if we could capture and store this free energy? Lightning is just as free as wind and solar energy, maybe one day we’ll have lightning farms with rows and rows of metal capture rods.

Harnessing lightning energy, it turns out, is actually very difficult to do. The difficulty of pinpointing electric storms and their duration of microseconds doesn’t really lend to immediate second tries or gathering tons of data, so most of the studies surrounding this subject matter involve small scale simulations of man-made lightning1. The experiments range from the actual tapping of ambient energy, to doing so in a short period of time, to storing it for extended periods of time. In theory all you need to do is capture, store, convert to AC, and send off to the power grid2.

 farm

A lightning farm3

In fact, harnessing lightning energy has been theorized all over the world, lightning is universal. A team from the Institute of Chemistry at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil conducted experiments with electricity flowing through dust and humidity in the air. This static electricity is referred to as hygroelectricity, a phenomenon familiar to Tesla and his work. Hygroelectric charges could very well be the cause of lightning. To help this case, these charges exist in such situations as thunderstorms. Back in Brazil, Ildo Sauer, a directors of the Electro-technical and Energy Institute at the University of Sao Paulo, claims that the “basic processes of energy conversion involving ambient electricity had been known for centuries4.”

One man, Steve Le Roy, an inventor from Illinois, claims to have generated enough electricity from a simulated 3-foot bolt of lightning to power a 60 watt light bulb for 20 minutes. Each mini-bolt is produced with a tesla-coil-like electricity producer3. His system has been described as consisting of “an array of grounding wires to shunt off most of the incoming energy and a giant capacitor2.”  Le Roy suggests, based on his small scale simulation, a full scale bolt would power up to 30,000 homes for one day3. Many have attempted to replicate Le Roy’s experiment, many have failed.

However, not all have failed. A research group conducted a study at the Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka (UTeM) and the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM). Also working on a small scale system, the group focused on figuring out how to store energy from the bolt after capturing it. Basically they tested different types of capacitors, voltages, currents, transistors, and many other variables to create the ideal mix to capture the energy in a capacitor and keep it from discharging. A metalized propylene film capacitor proved to solve duration problems with its ability to quickly charge and discharge. Though these capacitors have a limited energy density they could sustain high temperatures, worked well with high frequencies, worked well with DC, and the best part, they were fairly cheap and readily available. After testing the capacitors ability to charge, the group needed to prevent it from discharging. They did this by adding an insulated-gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) which essentially acts as a switch and isolates the capacitor so it can’t discharge into anything. The study as a whole was a success, the capacitors used were able to capture and store 5000V at 1.2 microseconds from a single bolt5.

We can see from a decent amount of successful studies that it is possible to quickly capture large amounts of energy and store it, similar to that of a lightning bolt, just scaled down. Not much can be said, however, about capturing the real thing, scaling up a system large enough to harness non-man-made, naturally occurring lightning. When asked about practical applications the leader of the Unicamp study, Fernando Galemback, responded “we are certainly far from it4.”

Is lightning energy on par with other renewables like solar and wind? Technically it falls into the same category, ambient energy is a renewable resource, but I don’t think it has the ability to compete. Sunlight and wind are free and so is lightning but it is more scarce and harder to predict. As a whole I think lightning energy just has too many variables to compete with more developed and more stable renewables already out there.

However, this doesn’t mean that there can’t be a limited number of lightning farms dedicated to specific areas. We know where lightning storms tend, so they might be more viable in these areas. What’s better is that since lightning occurs all over the world it has the potential to provide electricity to regions that don’t currently have very much access to it4.

 map

Lightning prone areas in lightning strikes per square kilometer per year6

Is it worth building lightning farms to not get that much energy in return? This is the age old question whose answer will either spur or subdue the push for lightning farms all over the world. This question can’t be answered until more full scale research has been done on the subject.

Sources:

1. http://www.crh.noaa.gov/pub/?n=/ltg/ltg_what_is_it.php

2. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/09/magazine/09lightningfarm.html

3.http://inhabitat.com/power-your-home-with-lightening/

4. http://www.scidev.net/en/news/lightning-could-one-day-be-harvested-as-energy-.html

5.http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=5544519&tag=1

6.http://www.brightexlightning.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Lightning-Map-lg-web.jpg

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Lightning, How’s That for Alternative?

  1. mwalker2343

    I researched the topic of lightning as an alternative energy source more and learned some interesting information to share that could affect the future of this idea and application. I have shared these ideas below with some personal reflection on what I believe this means for the future of lightning and its use as an alternative energy.

    Current expectations of energy use from a typical lightning bolt are fairly small (enough to power only one 100 watt light bulb for half a year).[1] However, lightning occurs around the world all of the time. Cumulatively, this represents great energy potential. My greatest concern while reading this post and completing additional research was the ability to have resources in enough places around the world to make this project feasible. However, I learned that some locations are more prone to lightning strikes than others. For example, The CN Tower in Toronto is the tallest building in North America, and is struck by lightning nearly 80 times each year. [2] I believe lightning energy might be easier to harness at the top of such a building as it is more prone to lightning strikes. Many lightning storms occur in the western U.S., which are in rural areas.[3] While this area of the country is more prone to lightning storms, it is still a large expanse and could prove difficult to harness lightning on a large scale. Therefore, a very specific place with a very high probability of lightning strikes may prove more beneficial for initial applications. This significantly scales back the potential of lightning as an alternative energy source, but I believe it is the strongest course for initial application.

    Sources:
    1. http://www.greenerideal.com/alternative-energy/other-energy/6228-can-lightning-be-harnessed-as-an-energy-source/
    2. http://www.greenerideal.com/alternative-energy/other-energy/6228-can-lightning-be-harnessed-as-an-energy-source/
    3. http://www.ready.gov/thunderstorms-lightning

  2. This is a very good post because lightening has not been considered as a real renewable source so far and always been neglected due to the major challenges of storage it. Although it has been debated for years that
    there are many challenges to store the lightening free energy, it is not hopeless today!

    According to the recent research from Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc. (AEHI),capturing the energy in lightening bolts shows a big success how this free energy is used.According to this outcome, 60 watt light bulb can be used 20 minutes by using the energy captured from a small amount of artificial lightening.Furthermore, a single bolt can power 150 million light bulbs [1]. This shows that lightening energy could be a powerful renewable source if enough time and money is allocated for research!

    Also, the second vital point is to create the lightening farms which has been one of the most important questions for years due to the impossibility of predicting when and where thunderstorms occur [2]. Nevertheless, according to the recent research on global distribution of the lightening by NASA, storm regions around the world can be seen.Hence, by constructing the lightening farms on these regions, using lightening source efficiency can be increased.So, the harvest energy from lightening can be used after collected and stored of this free energy.

    According to the researchers, since the energy in a thunderstorm is comparable with an atomic bomb, using lightening as a renewable source has been an important research recently.This could be succeeded by supporting the universities and companies to be able to do big researches on that.

    Hence, the idea of storing lightening energy has been appealing too much due to having the immense energy from it and could be a very important renewable source for next decade!

    Sources:
    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvesting_lightning_energy
    2. http://www.wisegeek.com/can-we-store-electricity-from-lightning.htm

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