Part 2: Genie In A Bottle

Fact: You can catch lightning in a jar.

Anyone remember the story of Benjamin Franklin trying to use a kite and a layden jar (an early piece of tech that we now call a capacitor think of it as the first battery) to store the power of lightning in a bottle? Luckily for him, that day no lightning struck that kite – or he would have most likely been killed. But why bother – its impossible to catch lightning in a jar. Right?

Scientists beg to differ. Using a giant tesla coil to generate artificial lightning (read: 2 million volts, or around 8,300 plug sockets), engineers and physicists attempted to secure that electrical power by allowing the lightning to strike a specially designed supercapacitor. Yeah: a modern, sexed-up version of Franklin’s own experiment. Doesn’t sound so stupid now?

Supercapacitors store energy in the form of an electrical field, while batteries store it in the form of chemical energy. What this means in practice is that supercapacitors are like batteries that charge up and release energy really, really fast.

So when the lightning struck this supercapacitor, did it really capture that energy in a bottle? Well, to prove it the engineers then go on to use it to start a car. Lightning powered cars. Excuse me while I get a job as Tesla’s marketing director.

This series of posts is based on the General Electric ‘Unimpossible’ video series currently on Youtube – check it out, it’s awesome:

Another One of Mr Shaunak’s Little Bites of Science
Image under creative commons license. 

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