Let’s get real people! We do have an energy crisis, but backing hypothetical, silly concepts doesn’t help anyone!
But just how silly is this idea?
It turns out that it may very well have validity.
The concept and study of atmospheric electricity has been around for quite some time now. The work of Isaac Newton (1642 – 1726) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) on lightning (remember Franklin and his kite flying) is well known. There were other people working in this area even before these two, but we never hear about them now.
Lightning is the most spectacular demonstration of atmospheric electricity.
What is lightning then?
Trying to simplify a very complex field of science, the story goes like this. The continual electrification of the atmosphere is due to ionisation from cosmic rays and natural radioactivity. In other words, the atmosphere is never quite neutral. It has been demonstrated that the atmosphere’s charge polarity is slightly positive in fair weather (and the earth is slightly negative).
What does ionisation mean? As we all know, the atmospheric gases (N2, O2, CO2 and many others) are neutrally charged and are, more or less, unable to conduct electricity. However, under the influence of cosmic rays, these gases can either lose or gain electrons and thereby become charged and in this state they are now able to conduct electricity to some extent. This process is known as ionisation.
The atmosphere also contains lots of water (visible at times in the form of clouds, fog, etc). This water tends to concentrate some of the atmospheric electricity. When the level of this stored electricity becomes too high, it is rapidly discharged in the form of lightning. In other words, this water contains energy.
As a side discussion, when the energy discharge via lightning occurs, the surrounding air is heated very quickly, causing it to expand and create a shock wave. This shock wave is heard in the form of thunder.
OK, so the “thin air” contains energy – sometimes lots. How then do we harness this energy? This objective has so far escaped our capabilities. But that may be about to change. And as is often the case in science, the breakthrough came about by accident.
Scientists at the University of Massachusetts were working with nanowires in an attempt to create sensors that could be used in wearable electronic devices.
To start at the beginning, what is a nanowire?
More specifically, they are protein nanowires. These are very thin “wires” (less than 10 microns thick) manufactured by microorganisms. The scientists previously noticed that placing nanowires between electrodes generated a charge. Wow, so how does that work?
The scientists put a thin layer of these wires on an electrode, then put a smaller electrode on top. The nanowire film absorbs humidity from the atmosphere. As shown above, this water holds a charge which is released when the water is absorbed. That generates the electric current. So far, they have only generated a small device that can power an LCD light. But they believe that the process is readily scalable – due to yet another breakthrough.
The bottleneck was the ability to produce large quantities of these nanowires. In response, the researchers were able to create a strain of bacteria that makes it very easy to produce large quantities of wires. The bacterium used is a strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli).
What is E. coli?
(Don’t you love science – in just over one page we have gone from flying kites (Benjamin Franklin and lightning), to physics, then chemistry, microbiology and electrical engineering!)
E. coli is a rod-shaped bacterium found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded animals (including humans). Most strains do not cause disease in humans and are part of the normal microbiota of the gut. In fact, the relationship between E. coli and humans is mutually beneficial (a type of mutualistic relationship).
More importantly, E. coli can be grown and cultured easily and very inexpensively in a laboratory setting – in a favourable setting, it takes as little as 20 minutes).
Yet another major advantage of this type of electricity generating device is that, unlike solar panels, it can be scaled up in 3D (as opposed to only 2D for solar panels) and it works at night, inside and pretty much in any environment – even, for example, in very low humidity environments such as the Sahara Desert. It should be applicable to small devices (like something able to prevent your phone from losing charge) and also large devices to power homes.
So who knows, perhaps in the near future we will be able to generate power from thin air!
And in a further big news item just to hand it has been announced that the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in San Francisco has successfully tested a nuclear fusion experiment where they achieved a net energy gain!
Hopefully these two developments signal some real progress in our attempts to wean ourselves off fossil fuels! Having said that, realising these developments is still years away. In other words, we can’t afford to reduce our current focus on reduction of fossil fuel usage. This journey will be long and complex, but developments like these do add some confidence to our hope.