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Lightning as a power source

  1. Aug 13, 2003 #1
    Here in Florida, the lightning capital of the world, I've been getting thunderstorms on a daily basis. Could lightning serve as a reasonable part of a city's power supply, at least during the rainy season? Across an entire city, I'm sure that you could get many strikes per day in this area, if you make towers that are good at attracting lightning.

    Is lightning feasable. I know that lightning has lots of power, but naysayers say that it's just too shortlived to provide a feasable amount of energy. What do you say?
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  3. Aug 13, 2003 #2

    Ivan Seeking

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    Hey Dan, I spent a fair amount of time playing with this idea many years ago. Here is some information from The Feynman Lectures on Physics; Vol II, Chap 9, pp 2,3,11

    The total power available worldwide is about 720 MW; having a typical average worldwide current of 1800 amps at 400,000 volts.

    The current in a lighting strike is about 10,000 amperes at the peak, and carries about 20 coulombs of charge.

    A typical strike can consist of 1, 2, 5, 10, or as many as 42 separate strikes.

    Going by some seat of the pants calcs: if we assume 20 coulombs at 400,000 volts as an upper limit for energy delivered per strike, then we get something like 8 MJ of energy [again as an ideal upper limit]. A typical storm may deliver 100 strikes but over a large area. Even if we could capture all of this energy, then assuming that each strike is really an average of 5 individual events, we get about 4000 MJ of energy; this gives us 1 MW of power for about 1 hour. Not enough to be worth the trouble it would seem. Note that for any real system, if one could be designed and built, we would likely find the efficiencies very low - yielding perhaps 1-5 minutes worth of power in practice [as an example].

    The other problem is that if we really somehow tapped this system, we would likely find many unexpected consequences in nature. Lighting is part of a worldwide charging and discharging system that may be an integral aspect of the biology of the planet.
  4. Aug 13, 2003 #3


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    Cool idea, but I guess its such a short duration that it only works for time travel.
  5. Aug 13, 2003 #4

    Ivan Seeking

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    Very insightful!
  6. Aug 15, 2003 #5


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    That's odd, I was just recently mulling over this possibility as I live in FL as well. It would be interesting to conduct further research on the subject since thunderclouds are basically gigantic batteries.
  7. Aug 17, 2003 #6
    Does anyone have any references to studies that deal with this subject--preferably based in Florida or an area with almost as much lightning? Like I said, I live in Florida, which has much more lightnig than most areas. It is much more likely to be feasable in Florida than in other areas. If this could be used to generate even 5% of electricity used, that would be great.
  8. Aug 17, 2003 #7

    Ivan Seeking

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    You may look into the work done to study lighting. Some universities - I would think one near you but I know that one in New Mexico does this - has teams that launch small rockets with a trailing wire to direct lightning strikes in a controlled manner. They may have some interesting information and data. I don't think anyone has ever tapped lightning for useful work.

    It may be possible however to discharge a relatively large cloud volume with these controlled strikes. Perhaps this provides a mechanism to funnel the energy.

    Still though, with something like 5 minutes of power at 1 MW per one hundred strikes, the economics of such a venture seem less than promising...even in Florida.

    Are you anywhere near the lightning capital of the world - Gulf Breeze?

    Edit: Here is a little afterthought.... If it is possible to discharge the cloud in a controlled manner - as in capturing this potential for useful energy - perhaps one could prevent large events over populated areas? It is said that lighting kills more people each year than all other natural phenomenon combined [I would have to check this to be sure this is true, but I have heard this said many times]. I have no idea what economic costs lightning imposes on the power companies, phone companies, and due to other damage such as that by fire, but in Florida these costs are probably significant.
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2003
  9. Aug 17, 2003 #8
    If it only delivers 720MW worldwide, that's only the powere of about one nuclear plant or about three thermal plants, so it doesn't seem very feasible to me.
  10. Dec 9, 2003 #9
    Hello, Physics Forums! I'm a ninth grader, and for a project we're working on lightning. From what I understood of your post, Dan, I gathered that you are looking for a way to collect and use the energy in lightning. One of the parts of our project is to design just such a device. Keeping in mind that I'm only in ninth grade, would you review my design?

    If, in fact, one could construct a giant generator, designed to capture and hold energy, one could feasibly use lightning as a power source. The generator would be inserted into a secure place in the ground, with wires connected to generators belonging to an electricity company, such as Duke Power. The generator would have two electrodes, one positive and one negative, with the negative electrode connected to the company’s wires. Seeing as thunderclouds are negative, and the positive charges in the earth are what attract the lightning bolts, the metal of the positive electrode would attract the negative charges of the lightning. The generator would then either store or send the energy collected, and the electricity company would be able to send out the lightning as household electricity, in turn doing a fair job of preventing the other lightning in the storm from striking the house or the electricity wires on telephone poles. This is because opposites attract and likes repel. The negative charges of the lightning converted into electricity will repel the lightning still in the clouds, and will hopefully redirect it into one of the generators in the area.

    I understand that you are all probably more educated than I am, but please be kind to me. I just wondered if it might work.
  11. Dec 11, 2003 #10


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    It might work, that gains are really questionable until someone does it. You might look up some work by Nikola Tesla, even though most people consider him a bit loony.

    One question, are you sure your only in 9th? Only think I knew about electricity in 9th grade was to not touch it.

    Which leads me to my next point, be careful if you do try this.
  12. Dec 12, 2003 #11
    Thank you, megashawn! Yes, I'm only in ninth. We've been doing an entire unit on lightning and electricity, and our curriculum is inquiry based. Actually, we have an exam coming up next week...I should probably be studying....
  13. May 25, 2009 #12

    This sounds like you pulled something right out of Tesla's writing. Maybe Tesla was not a quack after all when he suggested we control storms ourselves. ...but then it can be used for destructive purposes unfortunately too.

    Sorry to revive an old thread. But old threads are interesting.
  14. Sep 5, 2009 #13
    I have read Tesala's work in this field and he was successful........I think it is possible to collect all lightning which struck the earth, since all lightning indeed is received from the earth, plants use it for making nitrogen fixation.
  15. Jan 1, 2012 #14
    To all concerned:

    This is a potent, viable power source that is easily stored. It naturally is accessible and repetitive during certain inclement seasons, and is easily tapped.
  16. Jan 1, 2012 #15


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    You better not be dissing the doc!
  17. Jan 2, 2012 #16
    Great scott! <3
  18. Jan 18, 2012 #17
    You're all forgetting that lightnings are a great way of waking up Frankenstein's Monster...

    I want to see a nuclear power plant doing that!
  19. Jan 21, 2012 #18
    You can collect the power with "super capacitors" or old fashioned Layden Jars and then discharge the high voltage through resistors to limit the amperage and voltage to a line.
    There is one problem... Lightening is static electricity not DC or AC which could cause some problems. As I understand it static electricity travels around a conductor and not through it.

    I have been wrong before - if I am please educate me. (I hate being ignorant)
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