Batteries and Lightning

Sometimes our dependency on battery-charging devices seems ironic, considering the abundance of energy around us that is being generated every day by sources as mundane as the human hand, footsteps, and lightning, which strikes the Earth dozens of times per second. (See related photos: “Immense, Elusive Energy in the Forces of Nature.”)

A typical lightning bolt produces between 1,000 and 5,000 megajoules of energy, enough to power a car for about 180 to 910  miles (290 to 1,450 kilometers), and certainly enough to charge a cell phone, if you happen to be standing near a bolt and a transformer that can regulate the voltage. Scientists at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom recently succeeded in simulating just such a scenario, prompted by phone maker Nokia.

Reproducing the electrical conditions of lightning, researchers at the Tony Davies High Voltage Laboratory ran 200,000 volts through a transformer, charging a Nokia Lumia 925 phone within seconds. The experiment, while fun to watch and a nice plug for Nokia, might prompt one to wonder what the point is, as most of us have other concerns when when we are in very close proximity to lightning, such as avoiding electrocution. (See related photos: “Nature Yields New Ideas for Energy and Efficiency.”)

Nokia is careful to note that they “obviously aren’t recommending people try this experiment at home.” Instead, the company views the research as an avenue toward innovation in wireless charging.

“This discovery proves that the device can be charged with a current that passes through the air, and is a huge step towards understanding a natural power like lightning and harnessing its energy,” said the lab’s Neil Palmer in a release.

Indeed, other companies are actively researching the potential of wireless charging. WiTricity, a company based near Boston,  is working on a system that could conduct electricity from walls and carpets through the air, allowing devices to draw power without wires. The technology is also being tested on electric cars, which could charge when parked on pads that transmit power to coils in the vehicle. (See related story: “Wireless Power May Cut the Cord for Plug-In Devices, Including Cars.”)

You can see Nokia’s video about the project here: