Harvesting lightning as a source of renewable energy
Electrical energy has become an important part of our lives. With depleting natural resources to generate electrical energy, it is pertinent to find new sources of energy by building dams, wind farms, or harnessing the power of sea waves. What if we use lightning instead for power generation? Is it possible to harness such powerful electrostatic discharge from the roaring clouds in the sky?
The potential of lightning energy
According to Discovery Channel, we can harness enough energy to power 150,000,000 light bulbs just with one bolt of lightning. It would be a waste to ground such tremendous power without using it to the fullest. So, do you think that a lightning power plant would be a necessity for a green, renewable energy to satisfy the growing energy demand of our world?
How such a power plant is possible?
There is no such power plant in this world yet. All the possibilities are still in the theoretical stage and it seems that there are only a few interested researchers in this field. Therefore, there is little significant discovery or even news about this future technology. I am just interested about the future outlook of this power plant. (News) I do some research on the net and luckily (Pure Energy System) PES Wiki come to the rescue. This site is full of futuristic ideas of future energy system. At least it satisfies my curiosity about the rough outline of this future power plant.
Logistical and environmental challenges
There are many factors that have cause the non-adoption of lightning power plant. The main reason would be that not all areas in the world have regular thunderstorms such as in Florida, USA. The amount of electrical potential collected within the range of the device is not enough for power generation if the efficiency of the device is not high. Since lightning electricity is actually a direct current (DC) and every bolt of lightning has variable voltage, it would be tricky to convert such electrical energy into a specified alternating current (AC). Since the one time production of such electricity may exceed the instantaneous requirements, creating a large storage device or slowing down electrical distribution to solve this problem will be a great challenge.
The design of power station should also be able to withstand every bolt of powerful lightning of course! There are also concerns about the possibility of disturbing the nitrogen cycle in the atmosphere and disturb the ecosystem. As we all know that nitrate is the macronutrient for plants. Since the powerful electrical discharge of lightning is required for the synthesis of nitrates from nitrogen in the air, absorbing the power of lightning will mean that less nitrates is produced. However, the fixation of nitrates by lightning only accounts for 5% of total nitrates produced. This is not a major problem for building power stations. But there are many other long-term effects that we may not know for sure since this technology is relatively new.
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Ways to store the electrical energy
As hydrogen and oxygen
Now, let's come to the design of the power plant. There are various proposals for power plant construction but they are inconclusive. One proposal is to convert the direct current (DC) from lightning to alternating current (AC). The voltage is then stepped down until 10 Volts. The resulting current is then directed towards water supply or ocean water for electrolysis. Hydrogen and oxygen gas will generated from this process and they stored in a large container for later use. These gases can later be combusted to produce energy when needed. I think that this option is quite good actually because the energy from lightning is enough to power the power plant itself (including processing and cooling of hydrogen and oxygen for storage) and other needy areas. Any excess electricity converted to hydrogen and oxygen gas. The gases separated and transported by pipes for industrial purposes. I just wonder if one day our ocean will run dry because this process!
Ways to store the electrical energy
As melted metal
Another proposal is that the electricity channeled to a large underground reservoir of tungsten or other metals with high specific heat capacity. This will heat up the metal and if it is hot enough, the metal will melt. This melted metal used at later time by providing steam for turning turbines just like the geothermal energy. We usually extract metal from the ground, including tungsten. But is it economical to pump the metal back into the ground? Or we just need to heat up and melt the rocks under the earth crust? Will it affect to earth tectonic plates movements if there is excessive molten tungsten underground? There are just too many questions that yet to have answers.
Ways to store electrical energy
Inside large capacitors or space balloons
Other proposals include the usage of large capacitors for the storage of excess electrical energy. There are also concerns on how much of the energy are actually stored in the capacitor as the electrical energy has the potential to converted to radiation, heat, sound or even light energy in the process. Space balloons tied to conductive lines to the ground are also proposed for energy harnessing purposes. However, this area declared as a no-fly zone for planes because the balloons are dangerous to the planes once they sucked into the jet engines. I am glad that there are some companies interested to research in this area. This includes Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc and Logic-Co.
My opinion to overcome the storage problem
I think that with the help of long-range wireless electrical transmission technology, there will be no need of storage devices for this because the power production is not enough for the world provided with only a few locations for regular thunderstorm activity. Oh no! Day dreaming again!
All in all, this power plant may become a viable option in the future although there are lots of technical problems that needs addressing. The major problem is: How to store the lightning energy in the highest possible efficiency in the shortest possible time. If this is possible, you will cut down your electrical tariff. Nothing is impossible if you keep on trying!