Clean energy out of thin air

Could water in the atmosphere be the key to a new — and renewable — energy source?

In the classic ’80s film Back to the Future, a temporally stranded Michael J. Fox had to wait for a carefully timed lightning strike to charge the flux capacitor in his souped-up Delorean and send him back to his own time. But groundbreaking research presented by chemist Fernando Galembeck at the 240th national meeting of the American Chemical Society suggests that we might one day be able to simply pull electricity directly out of the air at will.

If we are able to safely and efficiently harness atmospheric electricity, and Galembeck’s research points exactly in this direction, it opens up a previously unattainable, clean and renewable energy source. Working out of the University of Campinas in Brazil, Galembeck says, “Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect.”

The field of atmospheric electrodynamics is not the gee-whiz stuff of Grade 8 science class where you rubbed a balloon on your classmate’s head and could literally see the effects of a static-electric charge.

Despite our fascination with lightning, and our best attempts from Benjamin Franklin on down to Nikola Telsa, the power of electrical storms has remained out of our reach and understanding. That may be what, in 2007, spurred Alternate Energy Holdings in Eagle, Idaho, to attempt to build a lightning farm. The idea was to have a large tower, one huge capacitor and a system of ground wires to distribute the incoming electricity. Like so many things, it worked in theory but not so well in practice.

The problem with our fascination with lightning is not so much that we are incapable of understanding it but rather that we tend to mistake effect for cause. Galembeck notes point blank, “Lightning should not be seen as a part of the process for creating electricity.” Why not? First, there is actually very little energy that comes through a single bolt once it reaches the ground, barely enough to run a common 100-watt light bulb. Secondly, even if lightning farms became operable, we would still need the constant presence of lightning to make them tenable. Although the earth sees 16 million thunderstorms per year, they are as random as they are sporadic, rendering the whole enterprise rather unsafe and unreliable.

Water, on the other hand, is always present in the atmosphere. For decades, it was assumed the water droplets in the air were electrically neutral. “There is a pervasive, very strong idea among scientists, according to which, most matter is electrically neutral,” Galembeck says.

And yet when Galembeck and his fellow researchers simulated water’s contact with dust particles made of silica and aluminum phosphate, both commonly found in the air, they noted the particles became increasingly charged proportional to the amount of water present. “This was clear evidence that water in the atmosphere can accumulate electrical charges and transfer them to other materials it comes into contact with,” he said. It also became clear that the more humid the air — the more water vapour present in the atmosphere — the greater the charge, essentially creating what Galembeck calls a “charge reservoir.”

So as cool as they sound, forget about lightning farms and instead think of “hygroelectrical panels.” Similar to the way solar panels collect and store energy, the panels, which would include a lightning-rod-like metal piece and a capacitor, would harvest the voltage, literally sucking power from the air. “Our research could pave the way for turning electricity from the atmosphere into an alternative energy source for the future,” says Galembeck.

Considering the total energy supply in Canada, roughly 16% comes from renewable sources, and installed capacity for solar photovoltaic energy has grown by 27% annually since 1993. The market’s appetite for such technology is whetted and ready.

Not wasting any time, Galembeck and his team are currently testing various metals to find out which ones will work best for hygroelectric applications. With Canada’s $1.43-billion ecoEnergy plan that was set up in 2007 set to expire in the coming year, the sooner we connect with cheaper, cleaner and more efficient energy sources, the better. As it turns out, Doc Brown wasn’t that far off: we do need the electricity that’s in the air to get us to the future, but it just won’t be through a clock tower.