The next big source of alternative energy could be the air itself

There's electricity in the air all around us, formed as water vapor comes into contact with dust particles. For centuries scientists have dreamed of tapping into this source of power - and we finally might be able to do it.

The knowledge that water vapor creates electricity goes back to the industrial revolution, when workers noticed the steam escaping from boilers created sparks of static electricity - and, for anyone foolish enough to touch the steam, a powerful electric shock. We've known the basic components of this form of electricity for a while - when water vapor and microscopic dust particles mix, somehow electricity is the result. But replacing that "somehow" with an actual scientific process has proved a seemingly unsolvable mystery.

But a team of researchers led by Fernando Galembeck of Brazil's University of Campinas may have made a breakthrough. As they explained at this week's meeting of the American Chemical Society, they were able to overturn a basic assumption about this process - that the water remains electrically neutral, even after contact with the charged dust particles. They were able to show that silica and aluminum phosphate, two of the more common types of dust, changed their electrical charges when in the presence of high humidity. That means the water vapor must have some of its own charge to exchange with these particles. The team has dubbed this "hygroelectricity", which basically means humidity electricity.

Galembeck says this gives them the chance to isolate the underlying processes of this mysterious form of electricity, and it might have other advantages as well:

"Our research could pave the way for turning electricity from the atmosphere into an alternative energy source for the future. Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect. If we know how electricity builds up and spreads in the atmosphere, we can also prevent death and damage caused by lightning strikes."

It's now possible to create hygroelectric collectors, which could theoretically gather enough electricity from humidity to light a house or power an electric car. As an added benefit, they would drain the atmosphere of excess electrical energy that partially causes lightning to strike. The collectors would be most practical in regions with high humidity, which includes the tropical regions and (as I'll be more than happy to tell you) much of the eastern United States.

[American Chemical Society]