Energy generators sourcing energy from Ionosphere

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Background of technology, including the basic science foundation

Far above Earth’s surface, within the tenuous upper atmosphere, is a sea of particles that have been split into positive and negative ions by the sun’s harsh ultraviolet radiation. Called the ionosphere, this is Earth's interface to space, the area where Earth's neutral atmosphere and terrestrial weather give way to the space environment that dominates most of the rest of the universe – an environment that hosts charged particles and a complex system of electric and magnetic fields. The ionosphere is both shaped by waves from the atmosphere below and uniquely responsive to the changing conditions in space, conveying such space weather into observable, Earth-effective phenomena – creating the aurora, disrupting communications signals, and sometimes causing satellite problems. Terrestrial lightning takes several milliseconds to occur, while magnetosphere-ionosphere ‘lightning’ lasts for several hours – and the amount of energy transferred is hundreds to thousands of times greater.[1]

The existence of ions in the atmosphere is the fundamental reason for atmospheric electricity. Atmospheric electricity is the study of electrical charges in the Earth's atmosphere. The movement of charge between the Earth's surface, the atmosphere, and the ionosphere is known as the global atmospheric electrical circuit. Atmospheric electricity involves both thunderstorms, which create lightning bolts to rapidly discharge huge amounts of atmospheric charge stored in storm clouds, and the continual electrification of the air due to ionization from cosmic rays and natural radioactivity.[2]

An absence of ions would mean zero electric field in the atmosphere and most probably no thunderstorms or lightning. The concept of fair weather electricity deals with the electric field and the electric current in the atmosphere propagated by the conductivity of the air. Clear, calm air carries an electrical current, which is the return path for thousands of lightening storms simultaneously occurring at any given moment around the earth.

In a lightening storm, an electrical charge is built up, and electrons arc across a gas, ionizing it and producing the lightening flash. The atmosphere is the return path for the circuit. The electric field due to the atmospheric return path is relatively weak at any given point because the energyof thousands of electrical storms across the planet are diffused over the atmosphere of the entire Earth during both fair and stormy weather. Other contributing factors to electric current being present in the atmosphere may include cosmic rays penetrating and interacting with the earth's atmosphere, and also the migration of ions, as well as other effects yet to be fully studied.

The ionization in the lower atmosphere is mostly caused by cosmic rays and natural radioactivity. Ions are also produced in and near thunderclouds by lightning and corona processes. Cosmic rays originate from solar flares and other galactic objects such as supernovas and exploding stars. Some of the ionization in the lower atmosphere is caused by airborne radioactive substances, primarily radon. In most places of the world, ions are formed at a rate of 5-10 pairs per cubic centimeter per second at sea level. With increasing altitude, cosmic radiation causes the ion production rate to increase. In areas with high radon exhalation from the soil (or building materials), the rate may be much higher.

Almost all positive ("+") natural ions during fair weather come from radioactivity. About 40% of these natural air ions come from radioactive minerals in the ground. Each time a radioactive atom decays near the air, it typically ejects an energetic alpha particle, produces 50,000 - 500,000 air ion pairs as it travels a few cm through the air. Another 40% comes from radon in the air (which produces about 250,000 ion pairs for each radon atom), and 20% comes from cosmic rays (high-energy protons from distant supernovas). Indoors, ions "live" typically 30 seconds before touching a surface and shorting to ground. Outdoor ions usually "live" several minutes more. Natural negative ions usually come from radioactivity and evaporating water. Lightning, thunderstorms, and forest fires can contribute "+" and "-" ions, but these ions are not produced under everyday conditions. Alpha-active materials are primarily responsible for the atmospheric ionization. Each alpha particle (for instance, from a decaying radon atom) will, over its range of some centimeters, create approximately 150,000-250,000 ion pairs.

NASA reported mission highlights from Columbia Space Mission TSS-1R; USMP-3:
"Currents measured during deployment phase were at least three times greater than predicted by analytical modeling, and amount of power generated was directly proportional to the current. Tether voltages of as high as 3,500 volts were developed across the tether, and current levels of about 480 milliamps were achieved."[3]
While there is a large amount of usable energy available in the atmosphere, a method or apparatus for efficiently collecting that energy has not been forthcoming.[4]

The current state of a technology

Required inputs for energy generation

The inputs for any energy generation process can be represented as shown in the System Representation. [5] The efficiency of the system is represented by the output energy divided by the input energy. In this case the primary source of energy comes from the ambient environment, i.e. the ionosphere. Some might consider this a "free" source of energy in that respect.

However, the systems required to collect energy need to be built and installed; and at a height of several miles[6] that probably means putting a structure into orbit. Over the lifetime of the system energy will be required to build, install, maintain and decommission the system. Those energy inputs are difficult to quantify at this point in time.

Organizations/researchers working with this technology

Only few researchers / companies seem to be actively seeking to extract energy from the ionosphere. They are listed below under their own heading. Many more research groups are studying the ionosphere in general, they are listed under the heading "Others".

Earth Energies, Inc

Earth Energies, Inc. is an early stage energy technology company developing world-changing products. The Company’s technology integrates natural architecture functions, state-of-the-art electronics, atmospheric science functions, ionosphere cavity resonance, and electrical energy dynamics into scalable electricity extraction and conveyance products for residential and micro grid applications. Larger and smaller form factor products are also being planned for application in different sectors.[7]

Whilst rather secretive, Earth energies' patent is more explicit : Method and Apparatus for Extracting and Conveying Electrical Energy From the Earth's Ionosphere Cavity.[8]

Lockheed Martin

Similar to Airbus obtaining patents in the LENR space, it is interesting to note Lockheed Martin have applied for a patent in harvesting atmospheric energy[9]. Whilst no other reference to this area of research could be found, the company is known to create room for projects outside of the beaten track, especially in the Skunk Works division. "For more than 70 years, the Skunk Works has existed to create revolutionary aircraft and technologies that push the boundaries of what is possible. Our unique culture is the key to our success – the secret ingredient that will define the solutions for the next 70 years and beyond."[10]

Ben Rich

Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works is the source of much speculation of secrets surrounding advanced technologies, as well as its famous second director Ben Rich, who has the following quote attributed to him, said to be from a 1993 UCLA Alumni Speech: "We already have the means to travel among the stars, but these technologies are locked up in black projects and it would take an Act of God to ever get them out to benefit humanity...Anything you can imagine, we already know how to do."[11]

Others

These researchers/institutions are studying the ionosphere, but do not have an explicit programme seeking to tap its energy as a power source.

  • ESA (European Space Agency) "the technical focus of our activity is the monitoring, data collection and characterization of ionospheric effects on the performance of GNSS and GNSS augmentation systems, with special emphasis on extreme events and ionospheric scintillations".
  • John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab / NASA[12]. The TIMED (Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics) mission is studying the influences of the Sun and humans on the least explored and understood region of Earth's atmosphere - the Mesosphere and Lower Thermosphere/Ionosphere (MLTI).
  • On a more terrestrial level, FreeVolt[13] harvests radio frequency (RF) energy from wireless and broadcast networks such as 2G, 3G, 4G, WiFi & Digital TV. It is not a primary energy source, but illustrates the concept of harvesting energy from the air for micro-power applications.

Reasons why the science and technology has not moved forward

One researcher explained how the interaction between the ionosphere and another layer in the atmosphere, the thermosphere, counteract heating in the thermosphere – heating that leads to expansion of the upper atmosphere, which can cause premature orbital decay. Another researcher described how energy outside the ionosphere accumulates until it discharges – not unlike lightning – offering an explanation for how energy from space weather crosses over into the ionosphere.[1]

The transfer of energy into the atmosphere isn’t always so innocuous. It can also heat the upper atmosphere – where low-Earth satellites orbit – causing it to expand like a hot-air balloon.

“This swelling means there’s more stuff at higher altitudes than we would otherwise expect,” said Delores Knipp, a space scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “That extra stuff can drag on satellites, disrupting their orbits and making them harder to track.”[1]

Costs of facilities, production, now and projected future costs with improvements

As with any energy harvesting mechanism, the energy density of the underlying source (in this case ionosphere) would be critical to the per-kWh cost of the energy thus generated. At this stage, not enough is known about either the concentration of such energy potential nor the methods to extract it to make meaningful cost projections.

Intellectual Property surrounding technology

One of the oldest patents, from 1860, by frenchman Hippolyte Charles Vion, illustrates that the idea of reaping the atmosphere's electric potential is not entirely new...

  • (Vion, 1860) US 28793 A[14] Improved method of utilizing atmospheric electricity "Be it known that I, HIPPOLYTE CHARLES VION, of Paris, in the Empire of France, engineer, have invented a new Mode of Obtaining Atmospheric Electricity and Terrestrial Eleciricity and its Industrial Applications; and I do hereby declare that the following is a full, clear, and exact description of the same..."

Recent patents

  • (Lane, 2015) US 20160029467[15] Charged particle induction from ionosphere to ground The present invention relates to the transmission of ionospheric energy through at least two “ionosphere-to-ground” coaxial laser-induced plasma channels formed through the Earth's atmosphere. As used herein, the term “ionospheric energy” means charged particles, namely ions and electrons, in the ionosphere. As used herein, the term “channel” means a conduit having walls comprised of ionized or partially ionized gas, the channel being substantially ring-shaped in cross-section, the walls serving as the conductive path through which charged particles are induced to ground.
  • (Lane, 2010) US 8693160 B2[16] Charged particle induction from ionosphere to ground "A charged particle induction apparatus and method comprising a high power light emitting means, such as a laser array, in operable communication with a high energy output means to accomplish initiation of at least two concentric plasma channels in atmosphere extending from the Earth's surface to the charge-rich upper atmosphere, including the ionosphere, for the transmission of charged particles therethrough to ground using the surrounding atmosphere as an insulator. The transmitted energy is drawn down (due to an artificially created potential) through the conductive plasma channels to collection means."
  • (Earth Energies, 2014) US 20150102676 A1[8]Method and Apparatus for Extracting and Conveying Electrical Energy From the Earth's Ionosphere Cavity "The system and apparatus of one or more embodiments of the present invention extracts, conditions, and conveys electric power from the earth ionosphere cavity through the integrated and collaborative operation of the system and apparatus consisting of a capacitively-coupled insulated elevated terminal (coupled capacitor upper plate), an evacuated spark gap, an integrated step-down transformer and resonant capacitor, and a ground terminal (coupled capacitor lower plate)."
  • (Earth Energies, 2014) WO 2015054472 A1[17] Power receiver for extracting power from electric field energy in the earth A resonant transformer connected between a ground terminal and elevated terminal draws current from the earths electric field through a primary winding of the transformer. An impulse generator applies a high voltage impulse to the primary winding of the resonant transformer to cause current to flow from the ground terminal through the primary 5 winding. The flow of current through the primary winding of the resonant transformer induces a current in the secondary winding, which may be converted and filtered to a usable form, e.g. 60 Hz AC or DC.
  • (Lietunov et al, 2013) WO 2013114285 A2[18] Energetically independent system for implementation of the new non-contact method to collect the electromagnetic energy(based on natural or artificial waves) by means of force field interaction in a continuous medium This application describes an energy-independent system that generates energysurplus, part of which is used to sustain operation of system itself and the remaining part is sent to the power grid.The system consists of a primary signal generator unit, a secondary signal generator unit and a load unit.
  • (Lockheed Martin, 2011) US 9160156 B2[9] System for harvesting atmospheric electricity Systems, methods and apparatus for harvesting atmospheric electricity are provided. The system includes a laser configured to form a plasma filament and a collector configured to collect electricity flowing along the plasma filament. The plasma filament comprises an electrically conducting plasma filament. Atmospheric electricity may be collected by having the plasma filament form at least a part of a conducting path: (1) between ground and a cloud, (2) between differently charged regions of the same cloud, (3) between differently charged regions of different clouds, and (4) between different regions of atmosphere, where there is a vertical voltage gradient. When the plasma filament is not long enough to form the entire conducting path, a lightning may be triggered to complete the conducting path needed to collect atmospheric electricity.
  • (Chen, 2010) WO 2012088722 A1[4] Ion collector Embodiments of the present disclosure provide systems and methods for collecting energy. Briefly described in architecture, one embodiment of the system, among others, can be implemented by a forced ventilated container, at least one air intake ducted into a ion separator, electrically connected to a collection circuitry with ion transport through ion conductor network in a permeable medium.
  • (Chen, 2006) CN 1881774 A[19] Collecting ion in air and its device utilizing the same The invention relates to a device for collecting and using the ion of air, wherein said device comprises: a, an air inlet device for flowing air to guide in positive and negative ions; b, an ion separate and collect device for accumulating positive and negative ions, while it is filled with stuff contacted with air; the invention uses the capacitor with positive and negative plates to accumulate the positive and negative ions; said ion separate and collect device is arranged with a high-voltage guider to guide the positive and negative ions; and it uses the high-voltage circuit board that intermission switched to control the discharge chamber or discharge capacitor, and uses semi-conductor refrigerator and relative output voltage; and the obtained energy can drive motor or be stored by energy storage device.
  • (Ibok, 2009) US 8045314 B2[20] Method of atmospheric discharge energy conversion, storage, and distribution A method of converting atmospheric electrical discharge to a useable form of energy by arresting, storage and retransmission of lightning-induced electrical discharge.
  • (Grandics, 2008) US 8004250 B2[21] Pyramid electric generator A pyramid electric generator for harvesting the vibrational energies of Earth's atomic oscillators according to the present invention comprises: an antenna/waveguide that is geometrically optimized; a secondary coil wound with an insulated conductor on a nonconductive coil form, the coil being attached electrically to the conducting surface of the antenna/waveguide such that the secondary coil is attached near the point at which the electric field contacts the antenna/waveguide; the antenna/waveguide connected with the secondary coil serving as a quasi-capacitive series element to provide a specific resonant frequency; and a primary coil of a few turns wound around the secondary coil, the secondary coil being positioned coaxially within the primary coil and acting as a resonant step-up transformer winding, inductively coupled with the primary coil. The generator resonantly couples into specific frequencies of Earth's atomic oscillators and extracts electric energy therefrom.
  • (Grandics, 2002) US 6974110 B2[22] Method and apparatus for converting electrostatic potential energy A new method is described to produce useful electrical energy from DC electrostatic fields using a pyramid-shaped capacitor. The system uses no moving parts and no mechanical energy is introduced. Also, when a pyramid-shaped electrode is charged with DC high voltage, a propulsive force is generated. This will allow the manufacture of vehicles capable of levitation and flight.

Ability to be scaled

The energy generation process can be represented as shown in the System Representation. For this technology to be scaled up consideration needs to be given to the logistics of scaling up of the input energy and/or input materials, and to the environmental impact arising from pollutants, waste, and land use.

In the short-term scaling up the required infrastructure by a series of land based rocket launches might impede the rate at which it can be scaled up, as this is costly and limits the mass and volume of material that can economically be sent into orbit. Rocket launches on a massive scale might have a significant impact in terms of pollutants.

An innovative alternative to this traditional approach could be useful; such as the 3D printing of low mass structures in Earth orbit, and/or low mass unfolding origami type structures.

In the longer-term it is anticipated that space based construction projects will take place in Earth orbit, perhaps with material shipped in from asteroids or the Moon, thus removing the energy expenditure and costs associated with launching materials from Earth. Waiting for this scenario might be too late though.

It is not clear what the impact on land use would be. How would the energy be collected on Earth?

The atmosphere is sizeable and omnipresent, but too little is known about the technology at this stage to assess whether considerable amounts of energy could be extracted in this way.

Environmental impact

The long-term environmental impact of a prospective energy technology should be considered and compared with alternative technologies. One way to do this is to use a Sustainability Scale [23] The environmental impact would be very dependent on the actual solution adopted.

In the short-term scaling up the required infrastructure by a series of land based rocket launches on a massive scale might have a significant impact in terms of pollutants. So innovative alternatives for deployment might be better.

It is not clear what the impact on land use would be. How would the energy be collected on Earth?

If such a technology were invented and shown to be feasible then we would have to be careful to ensure it did not have a detrimental impact on the environment. For example, would a protective role of the ionosphere be damaged; would that expose us to high levels of harmful radiation? Also, what would be the impact on radio communications that rely on the ionosphere?

Risks associated with a prize in this space

Risks are associated with all radical innovations, and that can be due to several factors. A good technology might not succeed in the marketplace due to poor marketing and promotion. The perceived safety and environmental impact of a technology is also important to successful adoption. [24] [25] [26] Poor implementation of a technology can also prevent successful adoption of a good technology. These are risks that come into effect after the awarding of an energy technology prize, but perhaps the associated challenge can provide post award support to ensure that these risks are reduced. No doubt the XPRIZE team has some useful contacts in the space industry, for example. In addition, of course, there can be risks associated with the technical efficacy of the technology itself, and the logistics surrounding its development, operation and decommissioning.

There are a lot of aspects to such a solution, and they all need to work well for this to provide a satisfactory solution.

If such a technology were invented and shown to be feasible then we would have to be careful to ensure it did not have a detrimental impact on the environment. For example, would a protective role of the ionosphere be damaged; would that expose us to high levels of harmful radiation? Also, what would be the impact on radio communications that rely on the ionosphere?

The environmental impact of this technology may cause anomalies in the ionospheric layers of the Earth, thereby altering the mathematical expression of the ionosphere. Thus, the risk to the environment stems from perturbations to the ionosphere produced by this technology. Disruptions in the Earth's electric currents affecting the different ionospheric layers may occur. Consequently, other anomalies with the use of the technology may produce phenomenon as strong solar flares, lightning, and damages between the Earth's upper and lower regions.[27]

Positive energy tests to evaluate this technology

This is especially crucial for technologies that are as yet untested or have not yet generated large amounts of verifiable performance data. What conditions would need to be met for this technology to be considered unequivocally “verified” or “validated”?

The inputs and outputs for any energy generation process can be represented as shown in the System Representation. The efficiency of the system is represented by the output energy divided by the input energy. Note that all energy inputs should be accounted for. In this case the primary source of energy comes from the ambient environment, i.e. the ionosphere. Some might consider this a "free" source of energy in that respect.

However, the systems required to collect energy need to be built and installed; and at a height of several miles that probably means putting a structure into orbit. Over the lifetime of the system, energy will be required to build, install, maintain and decommission the system. Those energy inputs are difficult to quantify at this point in time, and hence the net output energy is difficult to quantify too.

The transmission of radio waves at the ionosphere and the reception of their echo can be used to analyse aspects of the ionosphere. [28]

There are techniques to measure the electric fields in the ionosphere[29] and for measuring electron energy distributions[30] [31].

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/revolutions-in-understanding-the-ionosphere-earth-s-interface-to-space
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_electricity
  3. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/archives/sts-75.html
  4. 4.0 4.1 https://www.google.com/patents/WO2012088722A1
  5. Bostock A. (2017). System Representation, Energy Wiki
  6. Ionosphere, Wikipedia
  7. http://earthenergies.net
  8. 8.0 8.1 https://www.google.com/patents/US20150102676
  9. 9.0 9.1 https://www.google.com/patents/US9160156
  10. http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/aeronautics/skunkworks.html
  11. http://www.rense.com/general79/among.htm
  12. http://www.timed.jhuapl.edu/WWW/index.php
  13. http://www.getfreevolt.com
  14. https://www.google.com/patents/US28793
  15. https://www.google.com/patents/US20160029467
  16. https://www.google.com/patents/US8693160
  17. https://www.google.com/patents/WO2015054472A1
  18. https://www.google.com/patents/WO2013114285A2
  19. https://www.google.com/patents/CN1881774A
  20. Method of atmospheric discharge energy conversion, storage and distribution US 8045314 B2
  21. https://www.google.com/patents/US8004250
  22. https://www.google.com/patents/US6974110
  23. Bostock A. (2017). Sustainability Scale, Innovation Future Specialist, (UK).
  24. Slovic and Weber (2013). Perception of Risk Posed by Extreme Events, Regulation of Toxic Substances and Hazardous Waste (2nd edition) (Applegate, Gabba, Laitos, and Sachs, Editors), Foundation Press, Forthcoming
  25. Michael Siegrist, Heinz Gutscher & Timothy C. Earle (2006). Perception of risk: the influence of general trust, and general confidence, Journal of Risk Research: Volume 8, 2005 - Issue 2
  26. Linda Steg and Inge Sievers (2016). Cultural Theory and Individual Perceptions of Environmental Risks, Environment and Behavior: Vol 32, Issue 2, pp. 250 - 269, First published date: July-26-2016
  27. "Ionosphere"[/en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merriam-Webster Merriam-Webster Dictionary].
  28. Geoffrey Builder Wireless Apparatus for the Study of the Ionosphere Institution of Electrical Engineers, Volume: 8 Issue: 24
  29. Boyd (1967), Measurement of Electric Fields in the Ionosphere and Magnetosphere Space Science Reviews, Volume 7, Issue 2-3, pp. 230-237
  30. Hysell, Varney et al (2012), Estimating the electron energy distribution during ionospheric modification from spectrographic airglow measurements J. Geophys. Res., 117, A02317
  31. Shimoyama et al (2011), Suprathermal plasma analyzer for the measurement of low-energy electron distribution in the ionosphere Review of Scientific Instruments 82, 074501