There’s a nugget of scientific newness in the presentation at the national meeting of the Amercian Chemical Society of findings by Fernando Galembeck and colleagues at the University of Campinas (Brazil). For decades it has been accepted theory that water vapor in clouds is electrically neutral, even when it comes into contact with charged particles of dust. The evidence provided by Galembeck’s laboratory experiments indicates that water vapor does hold a charge. Using particles of silica and aluminum phosphate in a very humid atmosphere (humid = more water vapor), it appears that the water vapor can hold an electrical charge and pass it to the particles. They dubbed this form of charge hygroelectricity, or humidity electricity.
As seems de rigueur these days, this reversal of accepted understanding is quickly translated (verbally) into potential applications.
In the future, he [Galembeck] added, it may be possible to develop collectors, similar to the solar cells that collect the sunlight to produce electricity, to capture hygroelectricity and route it to homes and businesses. Just as solar cells work best in sunny areas of the world, hygroelectrical panels would work more efficiently in areas with high humidity, such as the northeastern and southeastern United States and the humid tropics.
Galembeck said that a similar approach might help prevent lightning from forming and striking. He envisioned placing hygroelectrical panels on top of buildings in regions that experience frequent thunderstorms. The panels would drain electricity out of the air, and prevent the building of electrical charge that is released in lightning. His research group already is testing metals to identify those with the greatest potential for use in capturing atmospheric electricity and preventing lightning strikes.
Verbally stepping into the realm of lightning is easy to do. After all, if water vapor really can carry a charge, and clouds where lightning forms are mostly water vapor, then it seems to follow that lightning must have something to do with water vapor. However, the study of lightning is old and fraught with unknowns. To this day many theories compete for how lightning forms. Hygroelectricity, in and of itself, is a long way from making a substantive contribution to that theory, much less provide a practical means for harnessing the electrical power of lightning. (It should be noted that while a bolt of lightning has enormous voltage, measured in millions of joules, it barely carries the kind of power needed to operate a 100 watt light bulb for 5.5 hours.)
The claim that the general charge of water vapor is in some way harvestable is even more…amorphous. As a presentation of findings and a blue-sky ideas for application, hygroelectricity is probably going to be interesting, but is likely to be challenged on many fronts. Why not? That’s how science works.
Given the state of the world’s need for electrical power and the struggle to find non-petroleum sources, no potential source is automatically ruled out. That puts findings like this one in a somewhat unusual category: Potential new approach, fully unproven. Another way of looking at it: High probability of impracticality, but we can’t afford not to run it to ground. In short, theory has problems with hygroelectricity, technical application even greater problems, but until proven worthless, it’s worth exploration.
Even this formulation is debatable, and no doubt plenty of scientists will argue that hygroelectricity isn’t worth the waste of research resources. However in the scientific process as it is today, if the Brazilians (or anyone else) can muster the funding, then the research will go on either until the approach runs out of steam or shows further potential.