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Autonomous storm-chasing power plants that harvest energy from lightening

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/DKr6BEdI2sE downloaded and edited

jnikola Oct 11, 2022
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Truck- or tank-like vehicles that chase storms around the country and collect electricity from lightening/thunders.
  • there are many thunderstorms happening all the time
  • real-time maps of thunderstorms are freely available (1,2)
  • everybody is scared of thunderstorms, but they are full of power (approximately 5 GJ or 10 Giga Watts) that can be used for various purposes
  • moving power plant allows you to harvest energy more often than a stationary one which "waits" for the storm
  • there are already ways or tries to control the energy from thunders
  • it's green and sustainable
  • it can help weaken the storm and prevent unwanted consequences (?)
  • storm chasing is fun and popular
How would it work?
When planning this idea, I had several main objections and potential solutions of thunder energy harvesting in mind :
  • Not available on demand.
  • Lightning frequency varies by region.
  • Difficulty in directing a strike.
  • Lightning is energetic, unpredictable and dangerous.
  • Lightning occurs too quickly to build up a charge.
  • Lightning may destroy equipment.
The main pointbehind my idea was to target the first two bulletpoints.
Interesting thoughts on this topic can be found in these two videos: video1 and video2.
Design of the vehicle
The vehicle (shown on the header photo) should be an all-terrain vehicle, that is autonomously-driven, protected, windproof (orange edits on the photo), can go fairly fast to "catch" the storm, has a "thunder collecting system" (red on the photo), an energy storage or an energy-transforming protocol (blue on the photo) and is safe from the damage caused by thunder strikes. It could be powered by solar energy (solar panels or solar-collecting metal body) or the energy harvested from thunders. The wheels could be replaced by track as seen on tanks or snowmobiles to ensure all-terrain driving.
Harvesting and storing the energy
Since I am not the first one interested in harvesting energy from thunders, there are some existing technologies and methods to capture thunders. The first one is performed by a high pole, tower or similar structure . The structure needs to be high to attract the thunder and needs to transmit the energy without being destroyed. The second one is related to sending rockets connected with a wire into a storm. The thrid one is related to using lasers to target lightning.
I think the best way for the beginning would be a retractable lightening pole similar to those seen on firefighter trucks with a lift to reach high places (shown on header photo). The highest lifting cranes mounted on trucks that I could find had an 84m working height! That should be enough to attract the lightening.
The lightening could be collected in a battery BUT WE FIRST NEED TO DEVELOP THAT KIND OF CAPACITORS AND BATTERIES that can handle and charge fully in less than a second.
Maybe a better way of harnessing huge amount of power harvested from the lightening could be to heat some material that can slowly release heat and provide energy for longer period of time. The same could be applied to water in a truck-mounted water tank. The electricity could either heat the water or be used to split the hydrogen and oxygen atoms (a process which usually requires a lot of energy).
It would be autonomously driven by satellite-guided systemthat tracks thunderstorms and chooses the best route for the vehicle. The autonomous driving would eliminate the factor of safety for humans driving the vehicle.
But please have in mind that I aimed to solve the first two bulletpoints from the above mentioned problems regarding lightening harvesting, not all of them. However, any comments and suggestions on all of them are welcome.
Problems to discuss
Are there negative consequences of "cathing" the energy of the lightening? Was it meant to do something else in the nature? Can we introduce yet unknown disballance?




Creative contributions

Using drones to transport the machinery instead of vehicles

Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni Oct 17, 2022
Vehicles, and especially trucks, are slow. Moreover, they will use a lot of energy (electricity, fuel) for transport, ultimately decreasing the net energy from the harvest. Instead, drones could be used to transport the machinery. The drones will be solar-powered, and hence, gain energy during transport. They will carry the harvesting machinery to the places hit by lightning. After harvesting and disseminating the energy, they will travel to the next lightning-hit place.
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jnikola2 years ago
Cool, but since most lightning hits the ground during thunderstorms, I am not sure drones could fly during storms. Maybe they could bring the equipment before the storm, but there should be less non-working time to increase efficiency.
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Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni2 years ago
J. Nikola Yes, since the drones will save on the traveling time, they could reach the area and place the machinery before the predicted storm time.
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An alternative approach - permanent stations at places with the highest frequency of lightning strikes

Povilas S
Povilas S Oct 13, 2022
I like the idea, but it might be more worthy (at least at first) to establish permanent lightning energy-harvesting stations in places where most lightning strikes occur.
Data on frequencies of lightning strikes in various places on earth is available. I bet similar data can be acquired on a smaller scale (country and region-wise) and lightning strike density maps can be created (if not already present). If the aim is to supply a country or its specific region with power, building a few such stations at places with relatively high lightning strike frequency would most likely be more worthy than having autonomous vehicles driving around chasing for lightning.
I understand that knowing a certain lightning hotspot doesn't mean knowing the precise spot where it will hit, but installing high conductor poles as you propose might attract the majority of the strikes to it.
Even if you take the worldwide hotspots, say, the champion - lake Maracaibo, around 233 strikes per year occur in a square kilometer of the area . A high conductor pole is likely to attract most of the strikes to it in that square kilometer. Knowing that a single strike has tremendous amounts of energy (one billion volts that can power a small town for an entire day), if we were able to harvest that energy, you could power a nearby lake Maracaibo town for almost a year from that single square km.
Now, the surface area of lake Maracaibo is over 13000 square km and most of the strikes occur (luckily) not above its surface as you can see from here, but above the ground on the right of the lake. That area is approximately as big as the surface area of the lake, so let's make approximate calculations: let's suppose that we can harvest 50% of the strikes from a 13000 square km area with 50% of energy efficiency, that would give us 757250 billion volts of electricity per year or approximately two trillion small towns with their energy needs covered.
Since the urbanized surface area of the Earth would contain approximately 200000 small towns only (I'll skip the calculations this time), that's about ten million times all the Earth's electricity needs even with 50% of harvested lightning strikes and 50% of energy transfer efficiency, harvested from a single geographical area on Earth.
So it seems that lightning energy harvesting might very well be the answer to all of our energy needs, the main problem is creating a technology to effectively do that. Once we have it, it could be transferred to autonomous storm chasing power plants as well.
Therefore maybe we should start a session focusing on the latter problem.


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jnikola2 years ago
I like the way you thought through this. It is indeed an excellent idea. However, I came up with my concept of a mobile system after reading about the unsuccessful implementation of the idea of a company called Alternative Energy Holdings.
They built a tower to collect energy from lightning, but failed eventually due to "high costs and many limitations". Furthermore, they name "sporadic appearance of the lightning" as their first limitation and that's what I wanted to solve first.
I searched for them on the Internet and the only thing I found was legal stuff regarding "raising millions of dollars from investors in Idaho and throughout the U.S. and Asia while fraudulently manipulating its stock price through misleading public statements that conceal the secret profits". I guess their project didn't come to life after that.
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Povilas S
Povilas S2 years ago
J. Nikola Fair enough, I also read a bit about attempts to harvest the lightning energy, including your mentioned company. I wonder still, how (in)effectively such towers attract lightning, can't find any statistics on that. Also, what about rockets or blimps with wires to transfer the energy down? Could harvesting the energy not from the ground-based structures be a better approach?
Anyway, regarding your idea, if harvesting the energy from ground-based poles is impractical, then there's little use of autonomous vehicles as well. They can't predict the exact spot where the lightning hits and it would be about as much use from them as from many stationary, ground-based towers in an area with high lightning strike frequency.
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