Does Lightning Hold the Key to Charging Electric Cars?

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A few years ago, scientists from the University of Southampton reported that while collaborating with cellular phone maker Nokia, they came across a groundbreaking proof of concept that shows harnessing the power of lightning for personal use was indeed an option. The study, which was an industry first at the time, proved that scientists could indeed tap into one of nature’s most destructive and significant energy sources in order to charge devices in a sustainable manner. Small handhelds are one thing, but when can we start powering our Tesla Model S with lightning?

In 2013, scientist Neil Palmer from Southampton’s High Voltage Laboratory was charged with investigating how simulated lightning could be used to a charge a Nokia phone. At the time, Nokia had challenged the university to see if two transformers could first harness the bolts while charging the phone. Palmer later reported: “We were amazed to see that the Nokia circuitry somehow stabilized the noisy signal, allowing the battery to be charged. This discovery proves devices can be charged with a current that passes through the air, and is a huge step towards understanding a natural power like lightning and harnessing its energy.”

So if this controlled experiment worked on a small scale, with a small battery, what are our chances of seeing this kind of “harnessing” for the use in hybrid and EV batteries? As this map illustrates, lightning is an abundant resource in areas like central Florida, Africa, and Asia, and it offers incredible amounts of energy in a very short period of time. Unfortunately, there are still so many uncertainties surrounding this uncontrollable force of nature that many scientists remain skeptical about its ability to be harnessed on a large scale.

Before we start erecting “lightning farms” at the mouth of the Cantatumbo River in Venezuela, or on top of Lightning Ridge in Australia, there are some additional facts to consider. While there are no carbon dioxide emissions directly related to harnessing lightning, and a single bolt has an average 5 billion joules of juice in it (about 0.85 barrels of oil), it is nearly impossible to capture all of this energy. Lightning is notoriously sporadic both in its timing and placement, and when it does hit, the heat from the bolt is so strong that it fries whatever it touches. Before companies like Tesla can tap into this resource, scientists are going to have to apply — and write off — quite a few different harnessing options.

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Forbes published a report on the subject earlier this year and offered a great deal of insight into the matter. The article highlighted both potential harnessing options as well as obstacles, and while there were a number of drawbacks listed in the report, it was still exciting to see this topic emerge as a viable contender going forward. The New Scientist teamed up with Norwegian-based energy specialist Statoil to search for some solutions while posing two key questions: How much energy is in a lightning bolt, and are there places where lightning strikes consistently enough that we could construct a conductive system that could harness and then transfer energy into the power grid?

Scientists have suggested everything from shooting laser beams into storm cloud to foregoing Earth altogether and heading to Jupiter for lightning. But trailing an electrically conductive cable from a balloon through the immense and powerfully charged Jovian cloud system of Jupiter is a long ways away, and we have our own issues here on Earth to deal with first. When lightning strikes, most of the energy arrives not as electricity but as heat, which cannot be harvested directly as power and is why lightning is so dangerous. If it could be captured somehow, the energy would be able to be stored and released as needed, much like wind and solar power, and capacitors could be used for smaller storage, while power stations would use large rechargeable batteries.

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Forbes’s report says there are quite a few key lightning strike locations, like the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near Kifuka. But why outsource when we already have what we need here at home? The Empire State Building in New York City is struck by lightning around 23 times a year, which roughly equals around 20 barrels of oil. This may not sound like much, but if similar amounts could be harvested by lofty structures across America, then we would start seeing some serious numbers. Remember, a lightning strike’s power level is stupendous — around 100,000 megawatts in vigorous storms, so funneling that into parking garage charging stations and batteries would be a huge win for environmentalists and scientists.

Unfortunately, we are still quite a few years away from seeing the Empire State Building being turned into a giant lightning rod. Forbes says a typical household “consumes between 5 and 10 kWh per day, so one lightning discharge would supply a home for only three to six days.” But an electric car doesn’t need that much power to run for a few days, so tapping into lightning purely for mobility’s sake might still be a feasible option. We just hope that the scientific community remains charged up over this abundant natural resource so that maybe one day all of our charging stations can have signs that read “Powered By Lightning.”

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