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Dramatic phone-charging experiment tells us little about lightning

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October 1, 2013

Are we really a step closer to harnessing the power of lightning? (Photo: Wim Vandenbussch...

Are we really a step closer to harnessing the power of lightning? (Photo: Wim Vandenbussche)

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In a development that would seem to bring a whole new meaning to the term Lightning charger, Nokia and the University of Southampton claim to have used simulated lightning to charge a Nokia Lumia 925 mobile phone. A University press release states that a 200,000 V was "sent" across a 30 cm gap with the light and heat generated supposedly similar to that of a lightning strike. But is there really any cause for excitement, or are we merely witnessing special effects?

From what can be gleaned from the available information, it appears a transformer was used to step mains electricity up to 200,000 V, causing an electrical arc to span a 30 cm (12 in) gap between two electrodes. The receiving electrode was connected to a second transformer, stepping the voltage back down so as not to fry the phone.

"We were amazed to see that the Nokia circuitry somehow stabilized the noisy signal, allowing the battery to be charged," says the University's Neil Palmer in the press release. "This discovery proves devices 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."

However, watching the accompanying YouTube video, it appears that a constant electrical arc was generated, which would mean that current was constantly flowing to the phone. In a lightning strike, conversely, a massive accumulation of electrical charge is discharged to the ground nearly instantaneously. So is the flow of current constant?

Nokia told Gizmag that it had nothing to add to the information published on its official Nokia Conversations website (which adds very little to the Southampton press release). Neil Palmer confirmed by telephone that a continuous current was indeed flowing. You could say, then, that all that is happening is that the electricity is being routed through a dramatic-looking artificial lightning generator. That may result in a spiky current at the other end, but the second transformer will ensure the voltage is stepped down. However, it is not immediately obvious what possible doors this opens so far as harnessing the power of lightning is concerned, let alone being a "huge step." Palmer tells Gizmag that it was the lack of damage to the phone that was interesting. Asked what we can learn about harnessing energy from lightning, he explained that other experiments were carried out involving the generation of heat, light and sound around the air gap. However, he added that no academic papers were to be produced as a result of the experiment.

"Based on the BBC's coverage, this appears to have very little to do with the atmospheric phenomenon we call lightning," an academic in a related field of study (with no connection to this experiment) told Gizmag.

With the limited information available, it's difficult to find justification for the claim that this is a step towards exploiting the power of lightning. If lessons were learned about the effects of transmission of electricity through air, they haven't been communicated in the press materials. And without an accompanying peer reviewed paper on any aspect of the experiment, our suggestion as things stand is that you don't read very much at all into this one.

You can see the relevant YouTube video and read the source materials for yourself below.

Sources: University of Southampton, Nokia

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life.   All articles by James Holloway
8 Comments

Pretty sure Nicola Tesla had already discovered things along this line.

Why are we re-inventing the wheel?

yinfu99
1st October, 2013 @ 10:07 am PDT

this is how the mother ship will charge her swarm of baby drones.

zevulon
1st October, 2013 @ 12:06 pm PDT

100 volts per meter in the air on a typical day, more in stormy weather, just that the current is usually low. Otherwise, each of you have some 170 volts in the air between your nose and toes, except our bodies probably tend to short that out and turn it into the wee bit o' current instead.

Anyhow, insulate a metal roof on a tall building for the large surface area plus height, then measure the current to ground through a meter and see how it does, and then ask, what size would a solar panel have to be to top that amount of power?

gseattle
1st October, 2013 @ 08:31 pm PDT

A typical lightening bolt carries enough energy to power a 100 watt lightbulb for about two months. For those who would enthuse over the possibility of 'harnessing the power of lightening', there's this thing called the internet where you can read all about this stuff.

Russ Pinney
2nd October, 2013 @ 04:30 am PDT

This particular exhibition is just a parlor trick. Power from lightning is a serious possibility though. I heard that they are studying this in Japan. The area around Tokyo gets a ferocious amount of lightning. A tower connected to the right technology could buffer the intermittent power from the lightning into regulated power that could be fed into the electric grid or possibly used for another purpose that doesn't require constant power. It is a really hard problem as the energy is deposited in a very short pulse.

neutrino23
2nd October, 2013 @ 05:15 pm PDT

Neutrino, where do you get your information? Lightening might look spectacular but unless there's been a recent change to Coulomb's law, it ain't going to be powering Japanese bullet trains any time soon.

Russ Pinney
3rd October, 2013 @ 08:31 am PDT

Nokia Research: now we know why Nokia had 62% of the market in 2007 and so little today.

Russell Willmoth
6th October, 2013 @ 02:38 am PDT

they maybe wanna say that they're working on an "instant charging" device for ur devices, but due to r&d secrecy in big firms, they can't say more for now, great.

also gseattle, i like this idea of self-sustainable giant battery buildings, if milli-power can b harnessed from trees, where's the limit with man-made sky-scrapers?

Uber Lime
8th October, 2013 @ 09:24 am PDT
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