Electricity in the air: Some of our energy needs may someday come from the atmosphere.
Electricity in the air: Some of our energy needs may someday come from the atmosphere.Courtesy wvs (Sam Javanrouh)
In a paper delivered at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston, a researcher envisioned a time in the not-too-distant future when houses and buildings outfitted with the proper equipment would be able gather electric energy stored in humidity in the atmosphere that could be used to fill a community’s electrical needs.

The concept isn’t new; electrical wunderkind Nikola Tesla had a similar idea more than a century ago.

Science has long sought the answer to how electricity builds up and discharges in the atmosphere, and whether the moisture in the atmosphere could even hold an electrical charge. But Fernando Galembeck, a professor at Brazil’s University of Campinas, claims he and his research team have successfully shown that it can, and by using special metal conduits to collect that electricity, it could allow homeowners and building managers to gather and store the electricity as an alternative energy source.

”Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect,” Galembeck said. He terms the new method “hygroelectricity” which means “humidity electricity”. Galembeck's research could also add to our understanding of how thunderstorms form.

In their laboratory experiments, Galembeck’s research team created a simulated atmosphere densely saturated with water (humidity), which they seeded with silica and aluminum phosphate, two chemical compounds commonly found in air. As water droplets formed around the tiny, airborne chemical substances, the researchers noticed the silica took on a negative charge while the aluminum phosphate droplets held a positive charge. The charged water vapor readily condenses upon contact with surfaces such as a cold can of soda or beer, and on the windows of air-conditioned buildings or vehicles. In the process, energy is transferred onto the contact surface.

“This was clear evidence that water in the atmosphere can accumulate electrical charges and transfer them to other materials it comes in contact with,” Galembeck said.

Just as solar panels convert energy from sunlight into a usable power source, the researchers think water vapor in the atmosphere could someday be harvested for its hygroelectric energy. The rooftops of buildings in regions of high humidity and thunderstorm activity could someday be fitted with special hygroelectric panels that would absorb the charges built up in the humid atmosphere and funnel the energy to where it can be utilized, and at the same time reduce the risk of lightning forming and discharging. The technology would be best suited to regions of high humidity, such as the tropics or the eastern and southeastern U.S.

ScienceDaily story
Wired story
Green Diary story

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Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Robyn's picture
Robyn says:

This sounds like a great idea. It also sounds like an idea that may actually be better than solar because of the cost. I hope that everyone can one day figure out a way to truly be able to afford to live off the grid.


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posted on Sat, 09/04/2010 - 6:08am
The_Engineer's picture
The_Engineer says:

Actually there is a limit to the energy recoverable. From published data, the potential between the ground and atmosphere is about 140 v/m or about 400000v if you consider the largest buildable tower. This sounds good, but the current is a measly 3.5uA / meter. Worldwide this gives a maximum power of 720MWatts. This is a lot but not really enough for us all to start thinking it is unlimited!.

Of course all this energy actually comes from somewhere. In this case the Sun. If you could harness all the energy from the sun as it hits the earth you could theoretically get up to about 1kW/square meter at the equator and less nearer the poles. The best commercially available solar collectors produce about 300W/sq meter.

All this means that getting energy from ions in the atmosphere needs a huge machine and at present other means of energy generation work better.

However, I'd love to see a working generator so keep working on it!

posted on Sun, 01/02/2011 - 5:15am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

what if it is a combined solar and hygroelectric panel...??

posted on Tue, 08/20/2013 - 9:09pm

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