New Concept Harvests Power From Thin (and Humid) Air

01/09/2010 03:43

Every day researchers search far and wide for new and exotic sources of green energy -- everything from termite guts to garbage is fair game. Now a team of Brazilian scientists are turning to a much more naturally abundant resource to power up our lives: the air around us.

We encounter static electricity all the time. It's what makes our hair stand up when lightning strikes or we pull on a sweater. Charge builds up on our bodies and gives a shock when we touch a metal doorknob.

Now, after 200 years of struggling to understand how electricity is created and discharged in the atmosphere, researcher Fernando Galembeck from the University of Campinas has an idea that involves humidity -- the wet air that makes us sweat profusely in the summer and shiver in the winter. 

In an article recently published in the journal Langmuir, Galembeck explained that water droplets in the atmosphere can pick up and then transfer electric charges to metals, such as silica and aluminum phosphate. Galembeck and his team call this process "hygroelectricity," meaning "humid electricity."

Super-humid regions, such as the northeastern and southeastern United States, have great potential to harness hygroelectricity to power buildings and cars. Galembeck imagines using hygroelectric panels, akin to solar panels, that would cover buildings and draw charged particles out of the muggy air. 

While powering buildings, this energy source could even be used, "to prevent death and damage caused by lightning," Galembeck said. Lightning is fueled by the buildup of electrical charge in the atmosphere. If these panels pull the charge out of the air, lightning cannot form. 

Though the prospect of using humidity as a power source is exciting, the technology is still years away. For now, it's back to cursing the humidity on those boiling summer days that drench us in sweat the moment we step outside.


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