With a rich portfolio of atmospheric energy-related patents and continued success in the creation of its Harmony III system, SEFE has become a leader in the development of this potentially groundbreaking technology. In April, MarketWire called SEFE “the first and only company positioned to capitalize on atmospheric energy’s potential.” But although SEFE is the only company currently looking for ways to produce electric power by extracting the static electricity freely existing in the earth’s atmosphere, the science behind the research began hundreds – or according to at least one engineer, possibly thousands – of years ago.

In 1750, Benjamin Franklin saw a bolt of lightning and set out to show that it was made of electricity. He proposed an experiment involving a storm, a kite, and, as the deaths of subsequent scientists would demonstrate, danger. Popular American folklore to the contrary, Franklin himself never conducted this experiment. Rather, it was French scientist Thomas-François Dalibard, who, using Franklin’s outline but substituting an iron rod for the kite, successfully extracted sparks from a storm cloud, proving the presence of electricity. Now when we see a lightning bolt across a stormy sky, it seems impossible to imagine that it is anything other than natural, deadly electricity.

A century and a half later, Estonian professor, engineer and inventor Hermann Plauson would take Franklin’s discoveries further, finding that electric energy existed not just in lightning bolts, but also in the earth’s seemingly empty atmosphere. In February 1922, the New York-based science publication, Science and Invention, reported on Plauson’s research in a front-page story entitled “Power from the Air.” It exclaimed, “The amount of electrical power that resides in our atmosphere is astounding.” Though Plauson’s experiments of floating aluminum balloons into the air was then one of the most modern attempts to collect atmospheric energy, the engineer himself posited that he was not the first to exploit the power source.

Plauson’s journal includes a detailed explanation of how the Biblical characters Moses and Aaron may have harnessed atmospheric energy to mimic a divine temper during the forty years they reigned over the estimated two and a half million Jewish slaves they led out of Egypt. According to Plauson, the construct of the Ark, a large wooden box lined on the interior and exterior with gold, shows that it was really a large Leyden jar that Moses and Aaron used to create fire, glory, lightning, and all other electric embodiments of God.  (The Leyden jar, an apparatus that can hold static electricity, wasn’t officially invented until 1745.) Even Aaron’s own sons, after making an unauthorized offering, were killed by the Ark’s mysterious fires.

Now, more than two hundred and fifty years after Franklin’s hypothesis – and almost a hundred years after Plauson’s experiments – engineers at SEFE are trying to finally unlock the secret behind collecting the invisible energy in the earth’s natural electric field. The theory behind SEFE’s current research is the same as Plauson’s. It is based on the composition of the earth’s electric field, which is filled with positive and negative ions that generate currents when they interact. SEFE’s engineers are developing the technology to optimize that current, collect it, and transform it into usable power.

The system, dubbed “Harmony III,” builds on Plauson’s original design as well as Franklin’s experiments from the 1750s. A large balloon floats in the air, connected to a “black box” converter on the ground by a conductive cable. Electricity from the air at the balloon’s altitude is sent down this tether into the converter and from there it can be either transferred into the power grid or stored as electricity for later use.

SEFE is hopeful about the potential effects of atmospheric energy, which it believes it will be able to supply at prices competitive with other sources of clean energy.  According to SEFE CEO Don Johnston, “In addition to serving communities, the introduction of the product to remote areas of undeveloped countries or the mining industry would have a meaningful economic impact. And this technology does not require expansion of the power grid that is often necessary with wind and solar.”

Of course, the operative words about the viability of atmospheric energy as a future resource are “once the technology is fully developed,” and right now, SEFE’s team is not yet at that point. But SEFE engineers Michael Hurowitz and Ryan Coulson are certainly optimistic that they will get there soon. They are designing a prototype for the Harmony III, and have established proof of concept — meaning it is feasible and works in principle.

There are more than a few variables that they still need to determine. What is the optimal balloon height for collection? How efficient can the collection method be? How close together can the balloons fly? Where could future atmospheric energy “farms” be located? SEFE’s engineers are aggressively researching and developing their methodology to answer these questions. In addition to floating their balloons and collection elements in Wyoming, they are also working hard in their Boulder, Colorado lab, partnering with LECGlobal to run high voltage electrostatic tests, using their ion detector system to collect data via helicopter, and working with the University of Colorado on the collectors. To date, all is performing as expected.

These might be daunting questions for some scientists, but Hurowitz and Coulson say they “enjoy the challenge.”  Specifically, they relish the opportunities “to delve into the unknown,” to continue “pushing the science forward,” and to collaborate with some of the best scientists in the country.

The public will have to wait and see if Hurowitz and Coulson can make good on their promise to basically generate energy from thin air, but if they are able to realize what Plauson envisioned, the benefits will extend far beyond SEFE and its stockholders.

 

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