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Ask Dr. Webber: Can Lightning Be Used as a Source of Energy?

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[Nolan] Dear Dr. Webber: I was wondering if you could answer this question? Can lightening be used as a source of energy? Thank you! – Nolan K. [Dr. Webber] Nolan: Thank you so much for your letter. You’ve asked an excellent question. The truth is lightning could be used as a source of energy – – but storing lightning poses four problems: First: It’s hard to know where lightning will strike. Second: While we know that lightning is more likely during certain types of storms, it’s hard to know when and exactly how many times lightning will strike. Third: A single bolt of lightning actually doesn’t have that much energy in it, surprisingly. And Fourth: The energy in the lightning bolt is discharged very quickly. Even though scientists have studied lightning for hundreds of years, we can not yet predict exactly when and where lightning will strike. If a team of engineers built a lightning storage device, it would be difficult to know where to put it so that it could catch the energy in the lightning bolt. Building enough of these storage devices to try and cover the entire United States, for example, would probably be expensive and impractical. Or if we just made a few of them it would require a lot of effort to constantly move the lightning captures around the nation to wherever the thunderstorms happen to be. Also, surprisingly, each lightning bolt does not have that much energy in it. A single flash of lightning has about 1 billion Joules of energy. Which is equal to about 300 Kilowatt hours. A typical lightbulb uses 20 Watt hours of energy if you turn it on and leave it on for an hour. An average home in the United States uses about 1000 Kilowatt hours of electricity each month. So to power one home for a month at least 3 lightning strikes would need to be captured. It is rare for lightning to strike a single location so often. The other challenge is that all the energy in the lightning bolt is discharged in a few milliseconds. That level of power would blow up most electrical devices. Batteries, capacitors, flywheels, that we might try to use to store the electricity. It is possible for us to design a device that would withstand the power in the lightning, but it would be difficult – and expensive. In total, lightning strikes about 20 million times per year. Even if we could invent and install our lightning storage devices at the right time and place we would only have enough energy to power about half a million homes. So while it is possible to store energy from lightning, there are many other naturally occurring phenomena we can use to generate electricity more easily. You probably learned about some of these technologies in school: For example we can capture energy in the wind using wind turbines. Or energy from the Sun using solar photovoltaic panels. Wind turbines already produce 20 times greater energy than we could get from storing lightning, and wind turbines only provide a tiny fraction of all the electricity we use. So we need to try every technology we can think of. Even though storing lighting might not be as practical as current technologies, there are still plenty of undiscovered sources of energy – so keep your thinking hat on. We need good ideas from people like you. Thanks again for your question, and please feel free to write again.

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