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The Mysteries of Atmospheric Electricity

By Rogers D. Rusk M. A.

Late of the Meteorological Section, U. S. Army Signal Corps.

The Physics of Natures Electricity Simply Explained

The air is in a continual state of electrification because it contains at all times small particles charged with electricity. Even the scientists themselves do not know just what these particles consist of because they are different from the electrified particles found anywhere else. We are seldom aware of the existence of these particles because of their very small size and due to the further fact that all bodies at or near the surface of the earth are at practically the same potential as the earth. However, if all the electricity in the air could be collected for use at one time, there would be more, by far, than we would know what to do with.

Benjamin Franklin startled the scientists of his day by bringing lightning down on a kite string, but we can go him one better today.


Even on the clearest day, if we send a kite up a few thousand feet, a distinct difference of potential can be noticed between the ends of the kite wire, often enough to give a severe shock. The cause of this electrification has been the subject of much discussion, but the biggest problem is to rind just what these minute charged particles consist of Ions or small particles charged with electricity can easily be produced in most any gas by means of an electrical discharge or by the influence of X-rays or radium, but the ions found in the air are different from these; in fact, they are different from those found anywhere else, hence it is that they present a puzzling problem to the scientist.

In general there are three types of ions which are found in the atmosphere called the large, small and intermediate. The small ones which have been known to exist for a long time are the same as those produced in any gas by the means above mentioned. When either an electric discharge.

X-rays or radium rays causes an electron or element of electricity to be detached from an atom or molecule to which it belongs, then it leaves that atom or molecule charged with the same amount of electricity of the opposite sign, and the charged particle is called an ion. Sometimes these particles group themselves together, thus forming ions of larger size. Instead of these, however, there are still larger ions found in the air which could hardly be formed from even large groups of small ions, for reasons to be mentioned later.

The larger ions of the air and the intermediate ones are closely related and are the ones which so far are puzzling the scientists.

Aitken, whose work along this line is justly famous, believes that the larger ions of the air are not aggregations of smaller ions, because when the smaller ions are formed by radium in a dust-free gas, the larger ions never appear. For this reason he believes the larger ions are really dust particles which have caught a charge of electricity. The word dust, however, is a convenient word to cover up our ignorance of just what the large ions actually are. In fact, they exhibit some properties which make them very interesting, and which show that they are far from being simple particles of dust.


These dust particles, if they are such, must not be confused with ordinary wind dust particles such as those blown up from a street. They are much finer and smaller, so much so in fact that they are capable of remaining suspended in the air for a very long time. Such particles are too small to be detected by ordinary means of observation and they can best be observed and counted by the famous cloud method. This method is to take a sample of the air and put it under reduced pressure which allows it to expand until the moisture in the air begins to collect around the dust nuclei, making them visible. In determining the relative size of the original particles another method must be used, and that is to compare their mobilities. The mobility of an ion is its rate of motion in an electric field of one volt per centimeter, and is a measure of its mass. The larger the mass the slower the particle will move under the given force.

By this method the larger ions are found to be over a thousand times larger than the small ions and the intermediate ions about half way between. It is argued that if these were dust particles only, then all sizes would be found instead of three distinct types. Recent discoveries tend to show there is something more than dust and electricity in the large ions and that it is this something else which causes the formation of the large ions which are not found anywhere else. It is all due to the discovery, a few years ago, that water vapor may condense in two ways on a rigid surface under certain conditions.

Either it may condense in the ordinary way as a pure liquid, or it may condense more slowly and form a very dense atmosphere of separate water molecules about half way between a gas and a liquid, which will suddenly change to a liquid with an increase of the vapor pressure.

Now the significant thing is that if the mobilities of the ions are measured carefully while the pressure of the water vapor in the gas is being increased, a point is reached where the intermediate ions suddenly begin to move slowly like the large ions as shown in Fig. I, and this has suggested to J. A. Pollock and others the following explanation:

The larger ions and the intermediate ones are formed of minute, rigid dust-like particles about which a small amount of water vapor has already started to condense. About some of these particles the water vapor has condensed as a liquid, forming the large ions, while about others it has only condensed as a dense atmosphere, forming the intermediate ions. When the vapor pressure in the air increases, the dense atmosphere on the intermediate ions may change to a liquid, as in Fig. II, and thus the intermediate ions become large ions in a fraction of time. This theory is not at all conclusive but it fits in with the observed facts better than any other, and is the only one which explains how the intermediate ions may suddenly become larger and more slowly moving. As water vapor only condenses in this peculiar way on rigid surfaces under certain conditions, we must assume that the centers of the intermediate and larger ions are different from the smaller ones usually found in gases and that they contain some small, rigid dust-like particle. This would also explain why they are not found in dust-free gases even tho the small ions are present, and why they are commonly found in the air.


How these particles become electrified is another and vital question. There are many possible ways in which the phenomena may be accounted for. The ultra-violet light from the sun is a very powerful ionizing agent, having the power to detach electrons from the molecules of the air, as it passes thru the air. This ultra-violet light is particularly strong in the upper and thinner layers of the atmosphere, and tho the air absorbs a great many of these waves on account of their shortness, still a large number reach the lower levels of the air.

Some more visionary theorists claim that ions and electrified particles are actually carried in huge streams from the sun to the earth, and there is some striking evidence that this may be true during periods of the sun's greatest activity. Friction is a great producer of electric charges, as is evidenced by the action of the well known friction static machine, and it is highly probable that friction of the air and dust particles in the air may be one of the potent causes of the electrification of the air.

Again it may be due in part to radio-active substances in the earth's surface which constantly give off electrified particles into the air.

The mystery of the electricity in the air is a double one and if we could discover just how the ions are produced we could more easily ascertain just what they consist of. When these two questions are solved we may be in a position to harness the "electricity of the air" to our own use.

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