Lightning as an Alternative Fuel Source: An Analysis of the Viability to Use Lightning Energy.

Season : Summer                          attract lightning had been discussed and according to Dr.
global lightning will be captured, which in terms of global
                             Annual                           ...
Attracting a Thunderstorm:

Let’s suppose that the Lighting Storage Facility was running
in July 2004. According to LIS, t...
fuels such as coal, petroleum, or natural gas that come from   The demand for energy has increased throughout the years
equipment and $40,000 in a 2500 square foot mobile home              J), probably comparable to the monthly energy consump...
6.   References:

Christian H.J., McCook M.A. (n.d.) A Lightning Primer. Retrieve June 10, 2009 from
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Lightning as an alternative fuel source an analysis of the viability to use lightning energy


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This paper discusses the viability in using lightning as a new
source of energy considering thunderstorms behavior, a
hypothetical lightning facility and the economic aspect
involved. Results shows that lightning could be able to
produce a large amount of energy, but in order to get this
energy there will be a need for many Lightning Storage
Facilities around the world which we prove in several ways
impractical. Results also demonstrate that lightning is not
necessarily inefficient because of the low energy it gives. Most
of its inefficiency is in the economic aspect, making it
inefficient or non competitive in the energy market.

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Lightning as an alternative fuel source an analysis of the viability to use lightning energy

  1. 1. Lightning as an Alternative Fuel Source: An Analysis of the Viability to Use Lightning Energy. Luis O. Maymí Undergraduate Student University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus Abstract: (2) Most of the energy available to the lightning is converted along the lightning channel to thunder, This paper discusses the viability in using lightning as a new heat, light and radio waves, leaving only a fraction source of energy considering thunderstorms behavior, a available at the channel base for immediate use and hypothetical lightning facility and the economic aspect storage. (Uman 1971) involved. Results shows that lightning could be able to produce a large amount of energy, but in order to get this 2. Thunderstorm Activity and Behavior: energy there will be a need for many Lightning Storage Facilities around the world which we prove in several ways The data from this research was collected from the Tropical impractical. Results also demonstrate that lightning is not Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) LIS (Lightning Imaging necessarily inefficient because of the low energy it gives. Most Sensor). The TRMM was the first mission dedicated to of its inefficiency is in the economic aspect, making it measuring tropical and subtropical rainfall and it was launched inefficient or non competitive in the energy market. into a low Earth orbit on November 1997. Along the TRMM the LIS, a spaced based sensor, is used to detect the 1. Introduction: distribution and variability of total lightning (Cloud to cloud, intracloud and cloud to ground) that occurs in the tropical Lightning is an electrical discharge between positive and regions of the globe. The lightning sensor consist of a storing negative regions of a thunderstorm. A lightning flash is imager which is optimized to locate and detect lightning with comprised of a series of strokes with an average of about four. storm scale resolution (5 – 10 km) over a large region The length and duration of each lightning stroke varies but (600x600) (35oN, 35oS) of the Earth surface. (NASA n.d.) typically averages about 30 microseconds. The average peak Using data from LIS, based on a period of eleven years (1998 power per stroke is about 1012 Watts. Sound is generated along – 2008) and by seasons, a global analysis was made in order to the length of the lightning channel as the atmosphere is heated pinpoint the most frequent thunderstorm activity around the by the electrical discharge to the order of 20,000 degrees globe (Figure 1). Thunderstorms vary according to the seasons (Christian n.d.) There are several lightning types: Cloud to and statistics, which show that almost all lightning activity cloud, intracloud, and cloud to ground (CG). A CG lightning occurs in the summer (Graph 1). typically initiates inside a thundercloud. When enough electrons collect on the bottom of the cloud, a negatively charged channel called stepped leader emerges from the bottom of the cloud. The stepped leader creates a path for lightning to discharge on earth and when the leader channel approaches the ground it carries about 5 Coulombs of negative charge, and has an electric potential of about 100 millions volts with respect to the ground (NWS Melbourne). The resultant electrical energy is about 1 to 10 billion watts- seconds per flash. The original idea of this research was gaining knowledge of areas that have the most thunderstorm activity so that a Lightning Storage Facility could be constructed. This research was going to be used as a reference for a future project about harnessing the power of lightning, but it have been proven that Figure 1: Thunderstorm Activity from the past eleven the energy lightning is of little use. But, if lightning has such a years. The black and red areas indicate more strong electric potential, why is it inefficient? There are two lightning concentration. Source: LIS basic problems regarding storing lightning energy: (1) It is impractical to intercept (for example, with tall towers) a significant number of the worldwide cloud to ground flashes.
  2. 2. Season : Summer attract lightning had been discussed and according to Dr. Vladimir A. Rakov from the University of Florida; “The YEAR Orbits Areas Flashes Groups Events capturing of lightning strikes would require the use of a large 1998 1451 64818 313281 3594803 18844385 number of tall towers, which is rather impractical.” Dr. Rakov 1999 1451 65198 284825 3357420 17892666 explained that using this approach as a lightning triggering 2000 1451 66189 303198 3653698 19397705 device, one will need at least 72 towers, of about 60m of 2001 1448 64339 300494 3554963 18191847 height, covering a large area of about 1 km2. These towers will trigger lightning, but the area needed to do it is too large and if 2002 1434 80671 409114 4536691 20393094 these towers are on areas with high urban activity, they could 2003 1433 83408 411538 4613715 20830756 be dangerous to the public and the structures that surround 2004 1434 82502 429060 4823091 21817715 them. The towers will be limited to areas far away from 2005 1434 84591 414944 4480353 20523994 population and this will also limit possible areas of 2006 1434 82209 391162 4248119 19013004 thunderstorm activity. If we compare the towers with the lightning rockets, they have the advantage of being set in one 2007 1434 81189 388596 4144114 18743819 place waiting, for lightning to hit it. On the contrary, the 2008 1432 83566 396977 4303577 19600090 rockets are easier to move and reposition whenever necessary, but there is the need of a large quantity of rockets to attract Average 1439.636 76243.64 367562.6 4119140 19568098 more lightning. Graph 1: Average summer thunderstorms from 1998 – 2008. Source: LIS Location: According to the article “Where are the Most Intense In order to store as much lightning energy as possible, there Thunderstorms on Earth” (Zipser 2006), the strongest must be several storage facilities around the globe in the storms were found to occur east of the Andes Mountains in specific areas that lightning is hitting the ground. The location Argentina, east of the Rockies in the United States, Sahara, will need to follow certain conditions which are: northern Australia, and parts of the Indian subcontinent. Also, (1) The place is safe for the community and does not present Northern Pakistan, Bangladesh, and parts of Central Africa any hazards. experience intense thunderstorms. (2) Lightning activity is frequent. In the United States, Florida is known as the lightning capital, (3) The location is large enough to install a lightning facility. having the most intense thunderstorm activity, especially in We took as an example for a “lightning storage facility”, the the summer, and the highest number of lightning casualties of International Center for Lightning Research and Testing all 50 states. (ICLRT) at Camp Blanding, Florida, which occupies over 100 For this research, we will use Florida as a scenario for a acres and it’s used especially to study the science and lightning storage facility. Having knowledge of where and technology of lightning. This location uses a rocket-and-wire when lightning is going to strike is of vital importance, but as technique to routinely trigger 30 to 48 lightning’s strikes per good as it is, it could present a huge problem; where the year. If we use a facility like this in all of the places lightning storage facility will be placed and how can we be mentioned in section 2 as principal storage facility, the sure that lightning is going to strike that exact place? This is possibilities of storage will potentially increase, but we are the first disadvantage of storing lightning. assuming that all areas around the globe will be able to trigger at least 40 lightning strikes per year and it’s important to add 3. Methods: that not all locations will follow the conditions mention before. For more information on the ICLRT see (Rakov A. An Analysis of the Lightning Storage Facility: n.d) Attracting lightning: Equipment and Materials: Early experiment shows that lightning can be attracted using We are assuming that a Lightning Storage Facility will need rockets. According to experiments made in the International an area large enough to construct a power station capable of Center for Lightning Research and Testing (ICLRT) at Camp handling and converting the energy that it captures. To build Blanding, Florida from 1997 to 1999, the total number of such a power station, it requires an immense amount of triggered lightning discharge was 112 (from 30 to 48 per year) resources for materials and equipment. Also, a large number (Rakov 2004). The problem with rocket triggered of towers will be needed around the facility, all connected to lightning is that people are needed to control the rocket. If one power station (probably miles away from the towers) to these rockets were to be used to attract lightning on a global catch lightning that are outside the rocket triggering device scale, hundreds of people will be needed. Also, there will be a range. The rockets could be used near the power station area to need to produce and ship a large quantity of rockets capture and process lightning energy faster. There will be a throughout several lightning storage facilities. Other ideas to need to fire rockets at a constant time rate.
  3. 3. global lightning will be captured, which in terms of global Annual energy distribution, will not be profitable nor negotiable YEAR Orbits Areas Flashes Groups Events between nations. 1998 5755 234563 1110679 13642997 70852064 1999 5752 240495 1061651 13222067 68995542 B. Case of Study: The Lightning Storage Facility in Florida: 2000 5734 240877 1094982 13685202 71818468 2001 5714 259919 1233304 14879389 72894929 In this section we discuss a theoretical Lightning Storage 2002 5435 274509 1364268 15790549 70536272 Facility to be located in Florida. We do not enter into any 2003 5606 280579 1405311 16253967 72692852 details regarding the electrical process required to store 2004 5706 295013 1463676 16999446 76378947 lightning energy. For details regarding lightning behavior toward power distributions, see (Schoene 2007a), 2005 5690 294604 1457929 16740282 75080146 (Schoene 2007b). We discuss thunderstorm behavior 2006 5689 298007 1431377 16155080 71939687 toward a theoretical power station and the primary purpose of 2007 5688 291773 1407419 15681388 69337980 this section is to prove what will be needed in order to attract 2008 5671 299849 1431323 16220511 71863457 and store a large quantity of lightning. The facilities will have the following: (1) Power Station Average 5676.363636 273653.5 1314720 15388262 72035486 (2) 75 Lightning Towers Graph 2: Average Annual Thunderstorm Activity (3) Two Rocket launcher towers from 1998-2008. (4) Two tower launcher control bunkers (5) Distribution line cables Energy: All the Lightning Storage Facilities of the world will be similar to this one so they could have more probability to If we used the annual statistics of 2004 (Graph 2) as a point of capture lightning strikes. In general, the Lightning Storage references and assume that at least one third of the lightning Facility will be at least 1 km2. In the power station, all that strikes the ground was captured, we could get: lightning energy that is captured will be processed and converted for domestic use. It is connected to 75 lightning Total of lightning events for one year: 76,378,947 towers and two rocket launcher towers. There are endless worst case scenarios for a lightning storage power station, but If one third is captured then the total of lightning capture in we will assume that it processes and receives energy without one year will be: any problems. The lightning towers are approximately 150 feet height and 76378947 x 1/3 = 25,459,649 are positioned on a horizontal line pattern. These towers are attached to the power station via a series of distribution line If we assume that each lightning strike has an electric potential cables capable of transferring the energy into the power of 100 millions volts and a charge of 5 Coulombs, the energy station. The two rocket launchers will be used to trigger capture will be: lightning near the power station, and they will be connected to the power station via another distribution line cable. 25,459,649 / 5 = 5,091,929.8 Coulombs per year A year of lightning storage will supply: W = (1.0 X 108 V) (5091929.8 Amp) W = 5.09 x 1014 Wyear According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2007, average monthly electricity consumption in USA was 936 kilowatt hours (kWh) (9.36 x 105 Wh) (Energy Information Administration 2007) (9.36 x 105 kWh)(1 day)(1 year) / (24 h) (365 days) = 1.07 x 1031 Wyear Figure 2: Lighting events July 6, 2004 taken by the The data shows that storing lightning does give you a lot of Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS).The time period energy, but not enough to satisfy the demands of electricity between 22:15:04 – 22:18:51 UTC. This image was per year. Also, the average energy consumption was only from used to pinpoint intense lightning activity to be use the United States and we assume that one third of the total for the Lightning Storage Facility.
  4. 4. Attracting a Thunderstorm: Let’s suppose that the Lighting Storage Facility was running in July 2004. According to LIS, there were 23,338 events on Hypothetical July 6, 2004 (Fig. 2). An event is defined as the occurrence of Location of a single pixel exceeding the background threshold during a Lightning single frame (Christian 200). The hypothetical Lightning Storage Facility Storage Facility is located in latitude 28° 2'3.08"N and longitude - 81°18'43.51"W, far away from population. Florida experiences winds coming from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico in which they converge and build thunderstorms. The area selected for the Lightning Storage Facility receives a high quantity of thunderstorms, especially in the summer, in which the winds tend to concentrate the Figure 4: Florida Composite Radar Image of July 6, 2004 thunderstorms in the center of Florida. thunderstorm at 23:00 UTC. Source: NEXRAD Level III Thunderstorm behavior toward hypothetical Lightning Storage from 1997 to 1999 had a total number of 112 triggered Facility on July 6, 2004: lightning strikes. If we use this as a reference, the lightning facility will hardly produce any energy at all, making it Data from the National Lightning Detention Network (NLDN) extremely inefficient. In this research we cannot give an exact shows that on July 6, 2004 there were many lightning strikes estimate of how many lightning strikes can be triggered in the that hit Florida (Figure 3) facility being mentioned. It will all depend on how the thunderstorm behaves toward the towers and rockets. Nevertheless, there will always be a need of powerful thunderstorms in the specific area which it will not always be the case. Figure 3: Total Lightning Strike from 20:00 – 23:00 UTC. The white area represents high concentration of Lightning strikes. Source: NLDN In the area of 1 km2 selected for the facility only 7 strikes hit Figure 5: Hypothetical Lightning Storage Facility in sometime between 23:00 UTC to 00:00 UTC and for the Florida. Located at latitude 28° 2'3.08"N and longitude - purpose of this research we are assuming that at least these 7 81°18'43.51"W. The verticals white lines indicate lightning 2 strikes were captured. A composite radar image taken from strikes. The white square is the 1 km Lightning facility. NEXRAD Level III (Figure 4) shows that at this hour thunderstorms start to concentrate near the hypothetical C. Economic Impact Analysis: Lightning Storage Facility provoking a large number of lightning strikes. We know that lightning does not generate enough electric We analyze this thunderstorm from 20:00 to 23:00 UTC and power and the methods to capture it are rather impractical. In the only time lightning approaches the hypothetical facility this section we discuss how a lightning storage facility impacts was at 23:00 UTC. At this time the thunderstorm had a the economy: maximum of 70 dBZ. The hypothetical Lightning Storage Facility (Figure 5) uses the fact that lightning strikes tall Renewable Energy: places, but we cannot assume that lightning will always be striking the towers or rockets in a 1 km2 area. Like we History shows us that liquids and Biofuels (fuel made from mentioned earlier, the ICLRT at Camp Blanding, Florida, organic material produced by living things, in contrast to fossil
  5. 5. fuels such as coal, petroleum, or natural gas that come from The demand for energy has increased throughout the years long-dead plants and microorganisms) have been the principal (Figure 7) and renewable energy is not able to keep up with sources of energy for the world and the projections for the this demand (International Energy Agency 2001). The energy future indicate the same (Figure 6). lightning produces is not enough to satisfy a global demand. The availability of lightning energy will be limited, highly expensive and not too efficient. Also, the lightning facilities will fall in a pure competitive market and possibly competing against the solar power or the wind turbines facilities for terrain. Since the Lightning Storage Facility will not produce enough energy, it will not generate enough income to maintain operations. Global Energy Consumption from 2006: In 2006 the total world energy was 472 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) (Figure 8). Much of the world energy is consumed by the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in which they consume 51 percent of world energy. In the International Energy Outlook of 2009 projections (Energy Information Figure 6: World Market Energy Use by Fuel. Administration 2009), total world consumption of marketed energy is projected to increase by 44 percent from 2006 to Lightning energy will fit in the renewable energy category. 2030. Renewable energy is defined as energy that is derived from natural processes that are replenished constantly. Lightning energy has the same problem as any other renewable energy; “Most of them have certain economic characteristics in common – large fixed costs and low or no variable costs, and consequently average costs that are very dependent on output levels. Solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, tidal, and waste-to- energy all require substantial up-front capital expenditures before any energy is generated, but have no fuel costs (all except waste-to energy need no fuel, and waste is usually free).”(Heal 2009) Energy Demand: Figure 8: World Marketed Energy Consumption 2006- 2030. The largest projected increase in energy demand is for the non-OECD economies. Lightning energy will not be able to compete nor give enough energy to satisfy this global increase in consumption. Also, the Lightning Storage Facilities will need to be around the world and all of them together will not be able to give energy to even one country. The countries with high thunderstorm activity will not invest in a project that will Figure 7: Total energy consumption demand not give them profit and they will prefer to invest on another worldwide. Although the new technology offers renewable energy. equipment that need less energy to operate, the demand keeps increasing because there are more Cost of a Lightning Storage Facility: consumers in the market. Lightning energy will not be able to satisfy what people consume daily. The International Center for Lightning Research and Testing (ICLRT) in Florida invests a total of $1.5 millions in
  6. 6. equipment and $40,000 in a 2500 square foot mobile home J), probably comparable to the monthly energy consumption (University of Florida Lightning Research Group 2008) The of an average household. Even if it were possible to capture hypothetical Lightning Storage Facility presented on section 3, all flash's energy (the bulk of this energy is not delivered to the will need an investment of twice this amount to be able to strike point since it is lost to heating the air and producing have the proper facilities to process and distribute lightning. thunder, light, and radio waves), one would need to attract 12 The power station could cost more than $100 million dollars in flashes to the energy storage facility in order to operate these construction and equipment. A lightning tower of about 150 ft five light bulbs for one year. The probability of lightning will cost at least $20,000, and in section 5 we use 75 towers, strike to a given point on ground is very low.” We are shown then a total cost in lightning towers will be around $1.5 that a large thunderstorm is not enough to capture a greater million. In addition, materials will cost at least $1.5 million amount of lightning needed and the possibility for intense (probably a lot more). The total will be an investment of $103 thunderstorms to hit a specific area doesn’t always happen. million dollars. Also, the Lightning Storage Facility mentioned in this paper does not assure that it will capture lightning nor be able to Where the Lightning Storage Facility will be? recoup the cost of building the towers needed to operate the facility. The economic analysis shows that lightning energy is In section 3, we mention where the most intense not profitable and will not satisfy demands. The lightning thunderstorms on earth are. If we were to use each one of energy capture will be limited and they will need to sell the these areas, there will be certain problems that will have to be energy at a high price in order to keep operating. Since dealt with: lightning energy will have to compete against cheaper 1. Highly populated residential areas, like Tampa and renewable energy, there is less chances that it can succeed. Miami Florida. How will people react if they have a Lighting Storage Facility near their homes? How 4. Conclusion: much are they willing to get paid in order for them to move? The answer to why lightning energy cannot be stored was This case presents the economic opportunity loss people and deeply discussed in this paper, considering the behaviors of companies could deal with. For example, a company wants to thunderstorms and how profitable it was in an economic construct in a populated area and it’s willing to give a large aspect. Lightning by itself generates high voltage and it’s amount of money to each owner of the houses. The owner powerful, but almost all its energy is converted along the could get the money and move, or the owner could decide to lightning channel to thunder, heat, light and radio waves. stay. For the Lighting Storage Facility, the company will need Unfortunately, a large quantity of energy is lost resulting in to have all owners completely evacuate all construction areas insufficient energy supply to meet demands. Lightning is since complete demolition will be required. If a larger number constantly striking the earth and the only sure way to capture of home owners decided not to settle then the lightning storage the lightning is to have all facilities around the world operating facility cannot be constructed. at the same time. Since lightning will give a small amount of 2. Areas that are large enough to construct a Lightning energy, it will not be competitive enough and it will generate Storage Facility, but are protected lands, like the Rain low profit. The facility itself is impractical and the problems Forest of the Congo, Africa. that have to be dealt with could be more expensive than what To properly construct a Lightning Storage Facility there will it will produce in years, so it’s not economically feasible. be a need to destroy part of the ecosystem. Unfortunately, This analysis proves that lightning is not an energy source building a lightning storage facility will result in capable of satisfying our energy consumption and it’s a project environmental damage to the ecosystem. This will provoke that does not assure any capital gain, making it difficult for outcries among the population and the damages are far more someone to invest in it. expensive than what the facility will produce in years. 5. Acknowledgment: 3. Results and Discussion: I will like to thank Felix Navejar (SOO), Andy Patrick (MIC), James Raley (ITO), Jonathan Brazzell (Hydrologist) from We prove that lightning energy is not powerful enough and is NWS Lake Charles. Dr. Richard E. Orville (Texas A&M an impractical fuel source. In this research we assume that one University), Dr. Henry E. Fuelberg and Scott D. Rudlosky third of the global lightning energy is captured and all of the (Florida State University), Dr. Edwin Irizarry Mora and Dr. analyses are based on a global scale. Dr. Vladimir Rakov, Jeffry Valentin (University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez) and from the University of Florida, makes an analysis about the Emmanuel Martinez (Graduated Student from Physics, energy one is able to capture from each lightning stroke. University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez). “Each cloud-to-ground lightning flash involves an energy of the order of 109 J. This is approximately equal to the energy required to operate five 100-W light bulbs continuously for one month or about 360 kilowatt-hours (1 kW-hr = 3.6 x 106
  7. 7. 6. References: Christian H.J., McCook M.A. (n.d.) A Lightning Primer. Retrieve June 10, 2009 from NWS Melbourne Weather Forecast Office. What is lightning? Adapted from NOAA Technical Memorandum ERL NSSL -102 by Holle and Lopez. Retrieve June 11, 2009 from Uman M, A. (1971). Has Lightning Any Practical Use?. Understanding Lightning (pp 145-149). Bek Technical Publications Inc. National Aeronautic and Atmospheric Administration (NASA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission. Retrieve from Zipser, E.J., D.J. Cecil, C. Liu, S.W. Nesbitt, and D.P. Yorty, 2006: Where are the most intense thunderstorms on earth? Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 87, 1057–1071. Rakov V.A., Uman M,A, Rambo K.J. (2004) A Review of Ten Years of Triggered Lightning at Camp Blanding, Florida. Atmospheric Research, 76, 503-517. Rakov V.A, Uman M.A, Rambo K.J. (n.d) Triggered-Lightning Testing of the Performance of Grounding Systems in Florida Sandy Soil. Proposal to: Lightning Safety Alliance Corporation. Energy Information Administration. U.S. Average Monthly Bill by Sector, Census; Division, and State 2007. [Data File] Retrieve from Schoene J., Uman M.A, Rakov V.A, Mata A.G., Mata C.T, Rambo, K.J., et al. (2007a) Direct Lightning Strikes to Test Power Distribution Lines: Part I: Experiment and Overall Results. IEEE Transactions on Power Delivery, 22, 4. Schoene J., Uman M.A, Rakov V.A, Mata A.G., Mata C.T, Rambo, K.J., et al. (2007b) Direct Lightning Strikes to Test Power Distribution Lines: Part II: Measured and Modeled Current Division Among Multiple Arresters and Grounds. IEEE Transactions on Power Delivery, 22, 4. Christian H.J., Blakeslee R.J., Goodman S.J, Mach D.M. (February 1, 2000) Algorithm Theoretical Basis Document for the Lightning Imaging Sensor. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Biofuel (n.d.) In Encyclopedia Encarta online. Retrieved July 2, 2009 from Heal G. (June 2009) The Economics of Renewal Energy. NBER Working Paper No. 15081. JEL No. Q3, Q4, Q5. International Energy Agency (2001) Competition in Electricity Markets. IEA Publications, 9. Energy Information Administration (May 2009). International Energy Outlook. Publication is on the WEB at: University of Florida Lightning Research Group. On WEB at: Last updated July 24, 2008.