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Owing to the somewhat explosive development of the science of atmospheric electricity during the past
decade this article covers a broad field of activity. The article begins with a description and discussion of the work
that has been performed to understand the electrical properties of the basic materials involved in generating
processes in the atmosphere. The aspects covered in this paper are the fair-weather conditions, cluster ions
concept, spherical capacitor theory, and the major applications of atmospheric electricity. Even the Fundamental
problem of atmospheric electricity and its solution have been dealt with. The sections covered also include the
electrification of the upper atmosphere and space, and a consideration of the global electrical circuit and its related
electrical `balance sheet'.

Cluster-ion concept, Spherical capacitor theory, Electrical balance sheet, Global electrical circuit.

It would be hard to build an array of lighting rods to capture periodic thunderstorm electricity. The biggest
hurdle would really be creating power plant infrastructure that could survive the harsh surges created by lightning
strikes, but even that seems possible with current technology and materials. Electrical and building design
engineers could come up with an innovative way to make it work. Specially designed buffer/insulation and
transformer materials could be used to safely capture and harness the massive amounts of electricity generated
during a lighting strike, and transfer it to large storage device for later use.

1. III/ IV B.Tech 2. III/ IV B.Tech

D.V.R College of Engg. D.V.R College of Engg
What is Atmospheric Electricity?
Benjamin Franklin was the first to design an
experiment to prove the electrical nature of lightning.
July 1750, Franklin proposed that electricity could be
drawn from a cloud by a tall metal pole. If the pole
was insulated from ground, and an observer brought
a grounded wire held by an

Isulating wax handle near the pole, then a spark

would jump from the pole to the wire when an
electrified cloud was nearby. If this was the case, it
would be proved that the clouds were electrically
charged and, consequently, that lightning was also
an electrical phenomenon. In June 1752, Franklin
conducted another experiment with the same
proposal, his famous experiment using a kite.
Instead of use a metal pole he used a kite, since it
could reach a greater elevation than the pole and
could be flown anywhere. One more time sparks
jumped from a key tied to the bottom of the kite string
to his hands. This proved that lightning was also an
electrical phenomenon.

Fair Weather Condition:

Atmospheric electricity abounds in the environment;
some traces of it are found less than four feet from L. G. Lemonnier discovered that even when there
the surface of the earth, but on attaining greater are no clouds, the so-called fair weather condition,
height it becomes more apparent. It was only after a weak electrification exists in the atmosphere.
the discovery of the electricity in the early 1700s that He also found some evidence that the electrification
the electrical nature of the earth’s atmosphere begun varied from night to day. In 1775, G. Beccaria
to be revealed. In 1708, William Wall, watching the confirmed the existence of a diurnal variation in the
spark of a discharge from a charged piece of amber, fair weather electrification and determined that the
observed that it similar to lightning. Around the polarity of the charge in the atmosphere in fair
middle of the century, after the discovery of the first weather condition was positive and that it reversed to
electrical properties of matter, it became evident that negative when thunderstorms were nearby.
lightning should be a form of electricity associated in
some way with thunderstorms.

Atmospheric electricity is the regular

diurnal(daily) variations of the Earth's atmospheric
electromagnetic network.

It’s the study of electric charges and currents in

the atmosphere. Fossils suggest that the terrestrial
Atmospheric layers: temperature and water vapor distributions. Such
influence is dominated by the effects of turbulence.
The layer in which this influence is felt is called the
planetary boundary layer or exchange layer. The
depth of this layer is highly variable, ranging from
tens of meters to 3 km above the ground.

Cluster ions Concept:

The lower and middle atmosphere is weak

conductors due to the presence of trace
concentrations of ions. Ions are created by ionization
of the neutral molecules of air, generally nitrogen and
Relationship of the atmosphere and ionosphere oxygen, by primary and secondary cosmic rays, and
by particles and radiation produced by decay of
The conductivity of the atmosphere increases radioactive substances in the soil, like uranium and
exponentially with altitude. The amplitudes of the thorium, and in the air, like the gas radon. As a result
electric and magnetic components depend on of the ionization of the molecules, free electrons and
season, latitude, and height above the sea level. The positive ions, in general singly charged, are created.
greater the altitude the more atmospheric electricity The electrons are, then, quickly attached to other
abounds. The exosphere is the uppermost layer of neutral molecules to produce negative ions. The
the atmosphere and is estimated to be 500 km to production of ions by cosmic rays varies with altitude
1000 km above the Earth's surface, and its upper and latitude. The production of ions due to the decay
boundary at about 10,000 km. The thermosphere of radioactive substances depends on the soil
(upper atmosphere) is the layer of the Earth's characteristics. In particular, in the oceans it is
atmosphere directly above the mesosphere and several orders of magnitude smaller than in the
directly below the exosphere. Within this layer, continents. In general, the average ionization (ion-
ultraviolet radiation causes ionization. The pair production) rate over the continent due to
mesosphere (middle atmosphere) is the layer of the radioactive substances is predominant on that due to
Earth's atmosphere that is directly above the cosmic rays below 1 km. Above 1 km, the ionization
stratosphere and directly below the thermosphere. rate is dominated by the cosmic ray source. The
The mesosphere is located about 50-80/85km above ionization rate is also sensitive to meteorological
Earth's surface. The stratosphere (middle conditions, and geomagnetic and solar activity.
atmosphere) is a layer of Earth's atmosphere that is Occasionally, the ionization created by energetic
stratified in temperature and is situated between particles during times of high geomagnetic and solar
about 10 km and 50 km altitude above the surface at activity can dominate that produced by cosmic rays
moderate latitudes, while at the poles it starts at above 20 km. Also, the 11-year solar sunspot cycle
about 8 km altitude. The stratosphere sits directly produces a variation in the ionization rate in the
above the troposphere and directly below the atmosphere. The variation becomes more
mesosphere. The troposphere (lower atmosphere) is pronounced with increasing height or geomagnetic
the densest layer of the atmosphere. latitude. After the ions are formed, they react with
neutral molecules and attach to water molecules
The presence of the earth’s surface influences from the water vapor always present in the
the concentration of ions, aerosols and radioactive atmosphere, forming cluster ions. These cluster
particles, through its control over the wind, ions are relatively stable, and constitute most of the
ions of molecular size, also called small ions. microscopic mechanism is not yet well
Examples of such ions are H3O+ (H2O) and O2- known).
(H2O)n. When small ions attach to aerosol particles, Convection in the thundercloud carries the
they form large ions. ice crystals to the cloud top, the heavier
graupels staying in the mid-cloud: a
During steady state conditions, the concentration macroscopic dipole structure forms.
of small ions in a given time and place is a result of By radiation ionization
the balance between the production (ionization rate) Cosmic and radioactive radiation ionize air,
and destruction of ions. Small ions are destroyed by and equal numbers of molecular-size
recombination between them and by attachment to positive and negative small ions are formed;
large ions and aerosol particles. The total average air becomes (weakly) electrically conductive.
concentration of small ions over the continents as Small ions are also attached to airborne dust
over the oceans is roughly the same and of the order (aerosol), which thus regularizes the number
of 1000 cm-3, even though the ionization rate is of small ions.
smaller over the oceans due to the absence of By collision ionization
radioactive elements. This fact, however, is Lightning and other discharges in the
compensated by the smaller loss rate due to the thundercloud ionize air temporarily into
lower aerosol concentration. There are more positive electrically conducting channels.
small ions than negative ones, and the difference
produces a net positive charge in the atmosphere.
The existence of a net positive charge near the
earth’s surface implies that additional processes of Outer space and near space:
ion production should exist, since the ionization
process produces equal concentrations of negative
and positive ions.

Charge Separation:

Atmospheric electricity involves phenomena which

are connected with the separation of electric charges
in the sub-ionospheric atmosphere (below about 100
km height). In the ionosphere and magnetosphere
there occur strong electric currents originating Electric currents created in sunward ionosphere.
directly from the solar-terrestrial interaction; in the
lower atmosphere, there flows a much weaker In outer space, the magnetopause flows along the
electric current in the so-called global circuit, which is boundary between the region around an
maintained by the thunderstorm activity. astronomical object (called the "magnetosphere")
and surrounding plasma, in which electric
Charge separation takes place in three ways: phenomena are dominated or organized by this
magnetic field. Earth is surrounded by a
Thermodynamically magnetosphere, as are the magnetized planets
In a thundercloud, small ice crystals collide Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Mercury is
with rime-growing graupels; the crystals gain magnetized, but too weakly to trap plasma. Mars has
positive charge, the graupels negative (the patchy surface magnetization. The magnetosphere is
the location where the outward magnetic pressure of
the Earth's magnetic field is counterbalanced by the The discovery of the fair weather circuit followed
solar wind, a plasma. Ben Franklin's demonstration that lightning is caused
by electricity. Later experimenters showed that clear,
calm air carries an electrical current which, it turns
out is the return path for the electrical display we
know as lightning.

Atmospheric electricity is like a massive

photographic flash. An electrical charge is built up, a
switch is closed, and electrons barge across a gas,
ionizing it and producing light. But a flash is a
Most of solar particles are deflected to either side of complete circuit. In the case of the Earth, the
the magnetopause, much like water is deflected atmosphere completes the circuit.
before the bow of a ship. However, some particles
become trapped within the Earth's magnetic field and The thundercloud charge centres, accumulating
form radiation belts. tens of coulombs of electricity, are discharged mainly
by lightning: cloud flashes (most abundant) cause
Photoionization: mutual neutralization of the centers; the lower centre
is also discharged to the ground - by negative ground
Photoionization is the physical process in which an flashes - and charges up the earth (the positive
incident photon ejects one or more electrons from an centre is discharged similarly, but by a smaller
atom, ion or molecule. amount). An excess charge will be left in the upper
positive centre, and it leaks by conduction to the
The ejected electrons, known as photoelectrons, surrounding air, about one ampere per thunderstorm
carry information about their pre-ionized states. For cell. Because of the exponentially increasing
example, a single electron can have a kinetic energy conductivity, most of this leak current is guided to the
equal to the energy of the incident photon minus the ionosphere, where it is distributed over the globe and
electron binding energy of the state it left. Photons charges the upper atmosphere to a potential of about
with energies less than the electron binding energy 300 kV with respect to the ground. This "ionospheric
may be absorbed or scattered but will not potential" maintains the so-called fair-weather
photoionise the atom or ion. current, whose density is about 2 pA/m2 (Pico
amperes per square meter). According to Ohm's law,
Fair-weather atmospheric electricity: the fair-weather current density and the electric
conductivity are associated with a downward electric
Fair weather electricity deals with the electric field field, about 100 V/m near the ground. The number of
and the electrical current in the atmosphere, and the simultaneously active thunder cells ("thunderstorms")
conductivity of the air. over the globe is about 1000-2000, so the whole
circuit carries a current of about 1000 amperes.
Why does not the (fair-weather) atmospheric electric the average field shows seasonal variations with
field cause a shock of 200 V to a standing human? maximum values in the spring and summer in the
Because the human is grounded in practice; the Northern Hemisphere, reflecting the fact that there is
poorly conducting air cannot charge up a grounded more thunderstorms in these seasons in the
object. Below a thundercloud, where the ground-level Northern Hemisphere than in the same seasons in
electric field may be tens of kV/m, the situation is the Southern Hemisphere. This, in turn, is a result of
different - but then the threat comes from a lightning the fact that there is more land in the Northern
strike. Hemisphere.

Carnegie Curve: Fundamental problem of atmospheric


In 1804, P. Erman, suggested for the first time that

the earth should be negatively charged. In 1860,
Lord Kelvin put forward the argument that positive
charges must exist in the atmosphere to explain the
electrification in fair weather. In 1785, C. A.
Coulomb discovered that the air is conductive,
observing that a well insulated conductor exposed to
air gradually loses its charge. It was then estimated
that the earth would lose almost all of its charge to
the conductive atmosphere in less than an hour
unless the supply were replenished. This raised what
The fair weather electric field presents diurnal and
has become known as the fundamental problem of
seasonal variations. The typical diurnal variation of atmospheric electricity, that is, how the earth’s
the fair weather electric field as a function of negative charge is maintained.
universal time was first clearly identified by the
measurements on the research vessel Carnegie in
the 1920s. The so-called Carnegie curve is a result
of hourly values of the electric field averaged over
many days. The Carnegie curve is very difficult to The first attempt to solve this problem was
reproduce at land stations due to local processes suggested by C. T. R. Wilson in 1920. Wilson
such as convection currents and aerosol variations. developed the hypothesis, known as the spherical
In general, fluctuations in space charge density capacitor theory that the earth’s surface and an
associated with these processes within the planetary equipotential layer at some height must behave like
boundary layer have an effect on electric field plates of a spherical capacitor. The equipotential
roughly comparable in magnitude to that of the layer was firstly termed electrosphere and was
Carnegie curve. If local variations at land stations are supposed to be somewhere between 40 and 60 km.
removed by averaging processes, the electric field Later, it was considered to be located coincident with
on the ground indeed shows a universal time the ionosphere.
dependence similar to that of the Carnegie curve.
The fair weather electric field also shows a seasonal Applications:
variation. Even though the overall pattern appears
much the same of the universal time variation, there 1. Application in high energy cosmic ray air shower
are small seasonal differences in the hour of detection:
maximum field intensity, indicating changes in the
longitude of maximum thunderstorm activity. Also,
Near ground atmospheric electricity was studied 2. A Lighting Harnessing Power
experimentally. The main objective was to gain more Plant
understanding of this particular aspect of
atmospheric phenomena, while testing the possible
application to cosmic ray research. The results in
atmospheric electricity show that there are certain
patterns in ion grouping such as the size and lifetime.
The average lifetime of ion group is 0.7 seconds and
the average size is about 10 meters at our
experimental site. Ultrahigh energy cosmic ray air
showers should create sizable slow atmospheric
electric pulses according to theoretical calculations.
Preliminary studies on air showers with total particle
number N equal or greater than 105 (1015 eV) have
yielded strong evidence that slow atmospheric This concept is perhaps not as impractical as it
current pulses are associated with air showers. The once was. The main limiting factor of implementing a
theory and the experiment agree with each other lightning capturing scheme such as this was the
fairly well when averaged over large numbers of inability to be able to store large amounts of
events. With the current experimental arrangement, electricity for later use. However, new Utility Scale
when the air shower exceeds a certain size, the Battery technology or other energy storage
system response saturates. Therefore it is extremely technologies such as Flywheels or Capacitors could
desirable in future research that the counter array be be used to store the electricity captured from
designed for a much higher threshold level, since this lightning in massive quantities, for later grid use.
prototype experiment indicates that interesting data Obviously, a lightning capturing power plant would
would be obtained. Another reason for further only be practical in regions with frequent
experimental research being directed toward thunderstorms, such as Florida.
ultrahigh energy, and higher, is to establish a
calibration of the slow atmospheric electric signals
generated by cosmic rays as a function of primary
cosmic ray energy and core location.

This type of slow atmospheric electric signal, if fully

understood and calibrated, offers a new and
potentially less expensive technique to observe
ultrahigh energy cosmic ray events, which hold some
fundamental keys to the knowledge of the universe
on a large scale.


[1]The Atmospheric Electricity Journal by Basil


[2]Phenomena in Environmental Electricity by

Reinhold Reiter