Electricity’s most fundamental riddle: How does it form in nature? Even centuries after Ben Franklin so famously harnessed lightning, recreating this natural phenomenon has remained an unsolved mystery to the scientific world. That is until now. Recent laboratory tests conducted by Brazilian scientists at the University of Campinas have shown that water vapor picks up a charge much like the way solar cells capture energy from sunlight. While this discovery sounds slight, it’s a finding that will actually bring us a step closer to capturing electricity from thin air.
Led by Fernando Galembeck, the research team proved indirectly that water droplets in the atmosphere do not remain neutral, as many have thought, but rather pick up a charge. The team simulated water’s contact with dust particles in the air. Common airborne silica became more negatively charged in high humidity, while aluminum phosphate became more positively charged. The results not only explain how electrical storms form, but also why electricity forms where steam escapes from boilers.
Armed with this newfound knowledge, researchers believe they will be able to find a way to harness electricity directly. Galembeck laments, “Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect.” While we’re all for a free ride, the notion of “hygroelectricity” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as solar power. In fact, one of the more disturbing aspects that comes with this discovery is that researchers are suggesting that the same materials which would be used to capture that ambient electricity could also in turn prevent lightning from forming by preemptively draining electricity out of the air. While we don’t deny that our gadgets need electrical recharging, when it comes to tinkering with one of nature’s most powerful forces, you can be certain that there will be no free ride — if we eliminate lightning, something may go seriously amiss in natural cycles. Is that worth a fully charged iPod?
Photos via Wikimedia Commons