Lightning as an Energy Source?
A recent article at RealClearScience.com entitled “Could We Harness Lightning as an Energy Source?” provided estimates of the energy contained in lightning (An average bolt of lightning, striking from cloud to ground, contains roughly one billion (1,000,000,000) joules of energy), energy usage in US households, the annual number of lightning strikes in the US, and concluded that only about 0.6% of US households could be fully powered by lightning in the country. The author summarized engineering limitations of converting lightning to useful electricity, and concluded, “Sadly, it is completely, utterly unfeasible to use lightning for electricity.”
One of the fundamental bases for patentable inventions in the US is defined in Chapter 35 Section 101 of the US Code.
“Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.”
Inventions meet the “useful” criterion if they provide an identifiable benefit and are capable of use. An invention must work in order to receive a patent.
The blog article conclusion quoted above is incorrect in light of US Patent 8,045,314 issued on October 25, 2011. For the patent to have been issued, the examiner must have made a determination that it meets the requirements of 35 USC 101, including that the invention will work (i.e, it is not “completely, utterly unfeasible”).
The patent provides a “Method of atmospheric discharge energy conversion, storage and distribution”, was awarded to Effiong Etukudo Ibok of Sunnyvale, CA and assigned to The Travis Business Business Group, Inc. The USPTO considers the invention to be an electrical system or device that uses charge generating or conducting to modify an environmental electric charge. We place this patent in the patentECO Energy Index.
The patent’s first claim states:
“A method of converting an atmospheric electrical discharge into a useable form of electrical energy comprising deflecting the discharge to an air terminal via one or more separate air terminals of a polarity, the air terminal having an opposite polarity to the polarity of the separate air terminals;
arresting the discharge via the air terminal to a power mitigating (step down) unit via a conducting unit connected to the air terminal;
wherein said power mitigating unit is not a transformer, reducing voltage of the discharge via the power mitigating unit modulated according to a capacity of the power mitigating unit, wherein the discharge is grounded if in excess of the capacity, and wherein the power mitigating unit reduces the voltage of the discharge from approximately higher than 100 MV (mega volt) and 100 kA (kilo amperes) to below 20 kV (kilo volt), 10 kA;
and storing the discharge with the reduced voltage in an energy storage unit connected to the power mitigating unit, the storage unit comprising modules of high energy density capacitors and the storage unit discharging the electrical energy into a power grid or to an appliance.”
The background of the invention provides this nugget:
“Lightning strikes every part of the globe but not uniformly. The regions with the highest historical concentration of lightning strikes . . . include Florida and the Gulf Coast in the Americas, the Equatorial Highlands of DRC, Rwanda and Burundi in Central Africa and the Monsoon Belt in Asia.
Except for the Americas, typically, these regions have very little electricity infrastructure. With the capability disclosed here, substantial reserves of electricity can be generated, stored and possibly traded.”
Thus, the inventor’s purpose is to provide a renewable energy source to developing nations that lack the electrical infrastructure and reserves of the US (and whose households would use a small fraction of the electricity consumption of US households).
This invention, issued by the USPTO Green Technology Pilot Program, is not the first of its kind. It cites 10 other patents as prior art, the first of which (US Patent 911,260) was issued to Walter Pinnock of Philadelphia in 1909 (157 years after Ben Franklin’s famous kite experiment in the same city). Pinnock, like recent inventor Ibok, provided a lightning collection mechanism and a storage unit (a battery in his case, ultracapacitors in Ibok’s). Both inventors sought to harness a renewable energy source. The illustrations are from Ibok’s and Pinnock’s patents.
The ability to successfully commercialize a patent is a far different venture than inventing a process or mechanism that is useful — that works.