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Lightning generates a great amount of heat and therefore pressure as it passes throught the atmosphere. We propose to capture this energy.


Description

Summary

Until now, lightning energy capture has been considered impossible, since the amount of electricity supplied is very high in a very short amount of time, surpassing the ability of electrical storage technology.

However, lightning generates very high temperatures and pressures as it passes through the atmosphere.  This converts gases temporarily into plasma, sending an expansive shock wave through the air, which we experience as thunder.


Tall towers can be built with lightning rods to avoid energy absorption by the external atmosphere.  Perhaps with the aid of laser-triggering, strikes can be guided into a chamber having a gaseous content with known desired thermodynamic properties.  As the lightning passes through the chamber, the gas suddenly expands and passes into channels surrounding the chamber, dispersing the extremely high pressure into lower pressures that can be handled by a variety of energy storage means:

  • Direct storage of pressure for later use
  • Storage of heat and pressure in PCMs (phase change materials) having appropriate characteristics
  • Storage using endothermic chemical reactions
  • Using pressure to simply raise the level of water.
     

This solution solves the problem posed by direct capture of electrical lightning energy, since the energy is temporarily stored as gaseous pressure, then is bled off through these means.

I.E. once lightning is guided into a chamber that can contain appropriate temperatures and pressures, the gas-buffer storage can be used "at leisure", i.e. at slower time-scales than sudden electrical surges found in the lightning itself.

Of course, this is only feasible where lightning occurs with sufficient strength and frequency to merit towers.

Note that a great deal of lightning occurs in tropical countries that may benefit economically from new energy sources. (although perhaps only a low amount of needed cloud to ground strikes.) The solid-state and potentially simple nature of these towers is attractive.

Map of Global Lightning Strike Frequency [Wikimedia]
Lightning Frequency [Wikimedia]


Category of the action

Reducing emissions from electric power sector.


What actions do you propose?

 

The statistical and thermodynamic properties of the system need to be carefully studied and certain basic questions answered:

That is:

What is the distribution of lightning strike power, current, and voltage? 
What gases, electrodes, and chamber designs are best for this range of strike parameters? 
What materials are needed? 
How much energy can be stored? 
What type of battery or other storage device can be used?
Which storage method best matches supply and usage profiles?

 


Who will take these actions?

The three principles are:
Galen Wilkerson, MS in Computer Science with experience modelling phenomena in Ecological Economics and working at the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission at NASA, among other research laboratories.  He will take part in design, modeling, and communication with other institutes and research labs as needed.

Federico Camboni, PhD student in Statistical Physics, will take part in design and modeling, including development of mathematical and computer models of thermodynamics and power loads.

Paul Widera, PhD student in mechanical engineering, has studied pressurized containment systems, and will take part in modelling and design.

 


 


Where will these actions be taken?

Berlin, Germany and USA.


How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

It is difficult to tell, since this depends on the statistical frequency and power of lightning strikes, as well as the ability to deploy generating chambers.  Also, with climate change, the latent atmospheric energy in the form of dissolved moisture is changing, perhaps increasing.  Ironically, climate change may provide increasing sources of this kind of energy.

Rough estimate...

Due to Jevon's paradox - the tendency of efficiency progress to be cancelled out by increase in usage, it is possible that no progress will be made.  However this can be said by any such technology.


What are other key benefits?

Other key benefits are the avoidance of other fossil-fuel or nuclear ways of generating electrical energy.  All of these have potentially major negative consequences in terms of environmental destruction or toxic pollution (mountain top removal, oil dependence, nuclear waste or accidents) and large amount of non-local energy transport.

This may also help fill current geographic gaps in other forms of power generation.  Wind, for example, is only available in certain locations (northern Germany).   However, lightning strikes seem to occur in other  places, allowing these areas to also generate electrical energy locally.

As this technology is developed, and better configuration of chambers, gases (or another absorbant medium) having particular thermodynamic properties, or storage methods are developed,

 


What are the proposal’s costs?

A great deal of this project can be spent in design and modelling, since it is important to carefully understand the constraints and statistics of the system.   Several months (6-12) should be spent on design of chamber and bracketing the system for lightning strikes having various properties in time, power, and frequency.


Time line


Related proposals


References