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Renewable Energy: Can We Possibly Harness Electricity From Lightning?

Updated on December 28, 2018
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Yusrat is a high school student from Bangladesh. She writes about Science & Technology.

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Over many centuries, men have wondered about Lightning. In my childhood, these lightning strikes would blow my mind superbly. So that once I said my father, “Dad, you say these bolts consist a really large amount of electricity. Then why don't we store the energy and make proper use of it?” He replied, “(laughing) why of course we can. You should try to design some possible ways to store the energy.” I ran and brought a notebook and a jet black pen and drew something like this –

Okay, I know it’s hilarious but I was pretty much serious about the matter and I ended up spending my next 6 years of my life wondering and searching for some possible clues. I was in Grade 1 then (I swear, it’s not a LIE) Finally I found that No, this possible technology is still under research and it could only be theoretically implanted because of the dearth of proper associated methods and facilities.

So, According to the scientist Lightning is a sudden electrostatic discharge that occurs during a thunderstorm. This discharge can occur between electrically charged regions of a cloud which is called intra-cloud lightning or IC, between two clouds which is known as CC lightning, or between a cloud and the ground which we call CG lightning. In fact, many people die every year due to the surge of lightning bolts. During March to May of 2018, 70 people have been killed in Bangladesh! Again the damage caused by lightning bolt is huge indeed. So that in Ancient age, people used to fear lightning and thought it to be almighty and would worship it. So Zeus was the sky and thunder god in ancient Greek religion! Each and every lightning bolt average bolt of lightning, striking from cloud to ground, consist an amount of roughly five billion (5,000,000,000) joules of energy. This is no small any amount, enough to power a 60-watt light bulb for six months plus a forgotten open door refrigerator for a day! Moreover, a typical American household consumes near 42 Billion joules of energy per year. The data indicates that lightning occurs on average 44 (± 5) times every second over the entire Earth, making a total of about 1.4 billion flashes per year. In 2009, the world used around 20,279,640,000,000kWh – over 40 times the electrical energy that all the hypothetically harness-able land strikes contain. So, basically, all the lightning we can capture will give the world enough electricity for only nine days! Let’s abandon all the nuclear power and coal based plants and run with a bottle with tight lid to catch THE ENERGY!

But how we can harness energy from lightening?

Patience! I am coming to that. You cannot chase the lightning bolts, abandoning our works, can we? Let’s imagine a possible design of this technology. As the bolts hit the ground within a really short time, the technology must be capable of capturing lightning bolts, which involve high energy too, rapidly. But using a ground based rod is pretty much impractical because if this gets too high, it may get damaged. On the other hand, if it gets too low, it may not possibly function. Again, it is difficult to predict exactly where the bolts is going to strike, the method must consist the technology to allow the bolts to hit in a particular place. For meeting the demand, Plasma Laser Channel could theoretically be used to allow lightning to strike in a predictable location. A high power laser could be used to form ionized column of gas, which would act as an atmospheric conduit for electrical discharges of lightning, which would direct the lightning to a ground station for harvesting. In the summer of 2007, an alternative energy company called Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc. experimented a method to capture the energy in lightning bolts. The design for the system had been purchased from an Illinois inventor named Steve LeRoy, who had been able to power a 60-watt energy bulb for 20 minutes using the energy captured from a small flash of artificial lightning. The method involved a tower and a capacitor to store the rest. Another effective method of converting the energy in a lightning bolt is to store it in hydrogen molecule which can be found through the electrical splitting of water, electrolysis or even using thermal splitting. Electrolysis can be occurred through using the high voltage, obtained from a lightning, to drive a pair of electrodes which are sunk into a water tank. Later on, the voltage will split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. We can separate hydrogen and can be stored as hydrogen fuel! The remaining possible option is the use of thermal storage and thermionic generator. Because of Copper's high thermal conductivity, it is unlikely to be used for this method. This method avoids few of the common difficulties to storage the high voltage of lightning such as damage. Thermionic generators usually convert heat to electrical energy using the temperature difference between two metallic (like copper) plates. But both of the plates must be separated by a vacuum. The heat generated by the lightning would be used to heat both of these plates. This heat would drive the plates to emit electrons from its surface and this electrons would be collected in a cold plate. Due to the voltage difference between two plate, electric current would driven from one to another. The produced current can easily be used to charge car battery!

As human will always leave its mark in this merely universe, we cannot omit the desire of energy overnight. In fact, there is no possible way to cut off the demand of energy from civilized world! Once there was no electricity, and people would use oil likely components and burn to meet the need of the energy. But those days have gone with the wind. Now, you and I can’t even imagine a single moment without electricity. And for meeting the energy demand we are combusting fossil and other natural resources which is composing external pressure on the world’s sources of minerals. In that particular point of view the application of this possible technology can help to reduce the pressure. In fact, this technology can be really effective because-

a) It doesn't possible have any waste product that can cause intoxication

b) Capturing the energy can save us from further damage

But There is More ...

To capture each and every lightning strike (land strikes only) we would most likely have to put extremely tall towers like Eiffel Tower around a mile apart in a grid covering the entire globe. That is one tower for each of the almost 200,000,000sq m of the Earth's surface. That’s pretty much difficult but new methods can help to overcome that. The necessary materials which would be used for the process would have to handle a huge amount of energy in only 30-40 milliseconds. To handle and store this life-and-death amount of power, ultra heavy duty electrical circuits (including super capacitors to store) and heavy conductors (may be Rods) would be required. Let’s imagine that the energy system is 100 per cent efficient then we can imagine a cost for purchasing the equipment only would be around £350,000 and £67 trillion for the land equipment. Let alone installation costs and regular maintenance, as well as the wire grid to connect all the towers together. That’s actually the money more than the world has!

Yet we can hope that technologist will come up something really good in the near future so that we can capture the energy cost effectively and run our world as it might be more eco-friendly technology than fossil based sources.Lightning could be the renewable energy source that saves our planet.

© 2018 Yusrat Sadia Nailat

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