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Electric Shock Creates Raindrops – University Of Reading Study

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Electric charge released into fog changes how water drops behave, first-of-its-kind research from the University of Reading has revealed.

Real-world experiments using a UAV have demonstrated that releasing charge led to detectable changes in the size and number of fog droplets. The new results are published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The research follows earlier findings using a supercomputer to simulate how charge could influence raindrop formation, by encouraging growth of small water drops. This was reported in the Proceedings A of the Royal Society.

The results come after University of Reading meteorologists Giles Harrison, Maarten Ambaum and Keri Nicoll were awarded a $1.5 million research grant from the United Arab Emirates Rain Enhancement Programme in 2017 to investigate the electrical aspects of rainfall.

Giles Harrison, Professor of Atmospheric Physics at the University of Reading, said: “We are pleased with our results from five years of investigations on droplets and charge, which span field measurements, computer simulations and new technology development.

“Our latest work has demonstrated how to use small aircraft to release sufficient charge to influence the behaviour of water drops.”

“It has been rewarding to work with many international scientists on this ambitious and imaginative programme led by the National Centre for Meteorology in the UAE.”

Some 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries according to the UN. Research into the properties of clouds and rainfall could therefore one day help avoid conflict over water, mitigate against using energy-intensive techniques to desalinate seawater, and provide enough water for a growing global population.

How did the experiments work?

Professor Harrison and his team, which included mechanical and electrical engineers from the University of Bath, carried out two experiments in fogs.

The first experiment was at the University’s farm in Sonning, Berkshire, in 2020, where charge was released into fog using a fixed array of electric emitters. 

Electric Shock Creates Raindrops

The team found that there were more tiny water droplets when the charge was released, reported in the journal Physical Review Research.

In 2021, the team travelled to a farm in Somerset to operate their specially-developed battery-powered Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle (UAV), described in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology.

The UAV flew in circles above low level fog, and was equipped to release positive and negative charge separately and together.

When either the positive or negative charge was emitted, more water droplets were again formed. In contrast, no effect was observed when both positive and negative charge were emitted together.

This was the first time a UAV had been deployed to electrify fog with the goal of changing its constituent water droplets.

Why is this research important?

Other results of the research programme indicate that rainfall could be encouraged by charging specific sizes of water droplets, from the wide size range naturally present in clouds.

This could help dry regions, such as in the Middle East and North Africa, where water is needed most. Fieldwork undertaken by the project team has studied desert rainfall and effects of sea breezes in the Gulf, and sent specially instrumented weather balloons through the fogs of Abu Dhabi. This has been published in the journals Atmosphere and Environmental Research Letters.

The UAE Research Programme for Rain Enhancement Science was created to address water security challenges worldwide.

According to UNICEF, some 700 million people could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030. 

Inadequate sanitation is a problem for 2.4 million people, say World Wildlife Fund, exposing them to water-born diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

Drones

As the drones used to release the charge are battery-operated, no pollution is created from propelling the aircraft. The charge released dissipates naturally.

This means Professor Harrison and his team have developed a more environmentally-friendly method of weather modification, which could in principle operate automatically from multiple sites.