Energy source of the future: electricity from the air

It may sound impossible, but scientists say they are in the early stages of developing devices to capture electricity from the air.

It may sound impossible, but scientists say they are in the early stages of developing devices to capture electricity from the air.

The concept: just like solar cells capture sunlight, gadgets will capture a charge from the air and use it to power a car or home.

We all know that there is an amazing amount of electricity charging and discharging in the atmosphere above. Your average lightning bolt can power hundreds of light bulbs -- but it's near-impossible to harness that concentrated energy.

But according to a report presented at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, a better idea may be to capture the ambient electricity that builds up in the atmosphere before all that pesky lightning forms.

Pursuing inventor Nikola Tesla's dream to capture electricity, a research team led by University of Campinas (Brazil) professor Fernando Galembeck claims that water droplets in the atmosphere -- once thought to be electrically neutral -- actually picks up an electrical charge when they come into contact with charged dust particles or other liquids.

The researchers designed laboratory experiments that simulated water's contact with dust particles in the air, using tiny particles of silica and aluminum phosphate -- both common airborne substances.

They demonstrated that the silica became more negatively charged in the presence of high humidity, while the aluminum phosphate became more positively charged. In other words: yes, water in the atmosphere can exchange electrical charges with other materials present in the air.

The researchers call the concept "hygroelectricity." Or in layman's terms: humidity electricity.

Galembeck said that this knowledge could drive researchers to develop collectors to capture this ambient "hygroelectricity" and direct it to where humans need it. His team is already testing materials to find those with the greatest potential to capture atmospheric electricity.

The process would work best in high-humidity areas such as the Eastern seaboard of the United States or the humid tropics.

Will we see this tech in our lifetimes? It's unclear, and there's a long way to go. But to scientists, the concept is no longer shocking.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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