Skip to Content
Climate change

Generating Power from Electricity in the Air

A researcher describes a potential new source of renewable energy.
August 25, 2010

Lightning is a powerful manifestation of the electrical charge that can accumulate in the atmosphere. New research, presented at the ACS meeting in Boston on Wednesday, suggests that it might be possible to harness that electrical charge.

Fernando Galembeck, of the University of Campinas in Brazil, has shown that water vapor in humid air can accumulate charge and transfer it to materials it comes in contact with. He says it might be possible to design collectors that exploit this behavior to generate electricity. The technology, which he calls “hygroelectricity” could provide an alternative to solar power in places without much sunlight but with a lot of humidity. It could also be used to prevent lightning strikes, he says, by draining electrical charge out of the air. He notes, however, that the research is very early stage and that such technology could be a long time coming.

Here’s the abstract from his paper:

Many experimental reports associate water-air interfaces with electrostatic phenomena, from “steam electricity” recorded in the 19th century and Kelvin water drop condenser to the close association between heavy clouds and thunderstorms. However, accepted physical-chemical mechanisms for charge build-up and dissipation at water-air interfaces are still lacking. This report shows that: 1) water vapor adsorption on dielectrics or isolated metal surfaces enclosed within a shielded and grounded environment causes charge accumulation on the solid, depending on the relative humidity (RH), nature of the substrate and exposure time. 2) A steep charge increase is observed in liquid and solid insulators under the action of external fields when RH approaches 100%. These results are in agreement with the hypothesis of water acquiring charge during adsorption and condensation, due to partition of aqueous ions.

Deep Dive

Climate change

The WHOOP 4.0
The WHOOP 4.0

Lithium-ion batteries just made a big leap in a tiny product

Sila’s novel anode materials packed far more energy into a new Whoop fitness wearable. The company hopes to do the same soon for electric vehicles.

Giant Kelp in Monterey Bay
Giant Kelp in Monterey Bay

Companies hoping to grow carbon-sucking kelp may be rushing ahead of the science

Sinking seaweed could sequester a lot of carbon, but researchers are still grappling with basic questions about reliability, scalability and risks.

recyclable bottles
recyclable bottles

A French company is using enzymes to recycle one of the most common single-use plastics

French startup Carbios just opened a demonstration plant—and hopes to expand the world’s menu of recycling options.

Remnants Of Hurricane Ida Move Through Northeast Causing Widespread Flooding
Remnants Of Hurricane Ida Move Through Northeast Causing Widespread Flooding

How Ida dodged NYC’s flood defenses

Despite spending billions on adaptation, cities aren't keeping up with climate change.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.