Fox News Weather Center

Lightning May be Harnessed as Future Energy Source

The power of natural lightning was successfully simulated to charge a mobile phone in a world's first when Nokia Corp. partnered with scientists from the University of Southampton in the U.K., in a September 2013 study.

Scientists, specifically Neil Palmer of the university's Tony Davies High Voltage Laboratory, were able to harness the characteristics of natural lightning.

"We used a high-voltage alternating current (AC) source to break down the air and to pass a current through it, giving off losses of light, heat and sound energy similar to that produced by visible lightning," Palmer said.

This industry first could potentially see consumers tap one of nature's significant energy sources to charge their devices in a sustainable matter, and could have far-reaching affects on technology, according to a press release by the University.

Electric vehicle charging and energy sources for communities are two areas that Palmer thinks this experiment could potentially impact.

"As for the next step, I would see charging batteries or other energy storage units from energy sources with characteristics similar to that of lightning," Palmer said.

This could be a huge step toward finding alternative, more sustainable forms of energy for communities to rely on.

"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 lighting and harnessing its energy," Palmer said.

The Power of Lightning

To understand just how difficult this experiment was, it is necessary to comprehend how much power lightning contains.

"It's a huge amount, and it reaches anything that can overcome the insulating properties of the air," AccuWeather Chief Forecaster Elliot Abrams said.

A cloud-to-ground lightning strike begins as an invisible channel of electrically charged air moving from the cloud toward the ground, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). When one channel nears an object on the ground, a powerful surge of electricity from the ground moves up toward the clouds and produces the visible lightning strike.

The energy in a lighting strike can reach up to 300,000 amperes and one billion volts, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

The air is heated to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and that rapid heating produces shock waves that result in thunder, according to NOAA. Lightning occurs during all thunderstorms.

Positive lightning strikes are the most dangerous. They occur when there is a net transfer of positive charge from the cloud to the ground.

"Positive strikes can be more than 10 miles away from the actual thunderstorm," Abrams said.

This is dangerous because many people think that it is safe to go out when they don't see any more lightning, but there is still a threat of a strike.

When it comes to lightning safety, the NWS suggests that you follow the 30-30 rule. If the time between when you see the flash of lightning and hear the thunder is 30 seconds or less, the lightening is close enough to hit you. After the last flash of lightning, wait 30 minutes before leaving your shelter.