Lightning is one of the scariest forms of energy in nature. What Halloween movie isn’t complete without a sudden thunderous bolt from the heavens right when the bad guy emerges from the shadows?
But lightning isn’t all just theatrics. It also contains a lot of power which, if it could be harnessed, could be of great use. This week’s dramatic electrical storms in Melbourne and Adelaide (storm photo gallery, ABC News) got us thinking… if we could capture lightning, what would we do with it?
In the 1931 film Frankenstein, the eponymous scientist used lightning-like bolts of electricity to create a monster. In the 1990’s film Back to the Future, Doc used lightning to power his DeLorean to travel in time.
While it is fair to say we’re not quite ready to raise the dead or travel in time, using lightning to power our homes – or even a simple appliance like a toaster – could one day be a possibility.
Tall buildings like The Sydney Tower are regularly hit by lightning. According to recent reports, a million volts can charge through the Sydney Tower’s metal frame countless times per storm. Depending on which reports you read, there are about 500 megajoules in the average bolt. This could easily power a 1000 watt two-slice toaster for over a year.
Capturing the energy in a lightning bolt has been tried but with limited success. Other ideas have included conducting electricity using rods, or using the energy to heat water which could then be used to generate electricity. This is similar to solar thermal technologies which use the sun to heat water and then generate electricity.
For now, we’d say you’d be mad to try and power your toaster with lightning (unless you like it really burnt); but if we can find an efficient way to capture, store and distribute this energy, then one day it may form a small part of our energy mix.
Learn more about how we’re already harnessing nature’s power to produce energy with supercritical steam.