1000+ Fluorescent lights powered by overhead cables

Craft & Design Science

This happen back in 2004, but it’s still very interesting – thousands of fluorescent lights from the emissions of the cables above–

Hundreds of people are flocking each night for a close-up look at Richard Box’ artistic display of 1301 fluorescent bulbs that are lit by the overhead high-power lines — just from the ambient energy surrounding the lines.

The display, called “Field,” which opened on Feb. 15 and has been extended to March 6, is situated near freeway M4 in Bath, England, where passersby can view the spectacle.

Pilon Ambient Energy Lights Field of Fluorescent Bulbs – [via] Link.

62 thoughts on “1000+ Fluorescent lights powered by overhead cables

  1. Shadyman says:

    Indeed. A cheap method of lighting for folks whose homes are right under these lines?

  2. turph says:

    This concept could make an interesting iraq war memorial…

  3. mrbill says:

    That’s “fluorescent”

  4. hex4def6 says:


    I wonder if the electricity company could sue them for theft; they are after all directly costing the electricity company.

  5. milombogo@gmail.com says:

    Actually, it’s not costing anyone anything. The bulbs are suspended in the air, they’re not plugged into anything. The EMF (Electromagnetic Field) generated by the wires above are what causes the lights to glow. You can get a similar effect from an ordinary fluorescent bulb and a Van de Graaff generator.

  6. pelrun says:

    The energy doesn’t just come from nowhere! Those bulbs are coupled to the wires even if they aren’t “plugged in”. It definitely costs the electricity company money – just not very much.

  7. Dr_Smooth says:

    I’m not electrical engineer, so I don’t know this for sure, but it appears that the lights are merely feeding off the waste energy that the power lines are ALREADY PUTTING OUT. But it could also be that the lights are causing the lines to lose power, which would be stealing energy. If they are just using waste energy, thats amazing, and I don’t think its stealing.

  8. samurai1200 says:

    Well, the electricity company shouldnt be losing anything more than normal due to these bulbs… that field is being created around the lines whether they like it or not.

    As I understand it (PLEASE, correct me if I’m wrong), all wires running a current have a magnetic field created around them (north pole facing the direction of the travelling current). So in order to harness this magnetic field you can use something like a coiling of wires (with many turns, like a solenoid?) which will then “push” the electrons along inside the coils, creating a current.

    Hook the ends of this coiling of wires up to the fluorescent bulbs (or, more than likely, a managing circuit that outputs to the bulbs), and they light!


  9. Shadyman says:

    Something like that, samurai1200.

    “This happen back in 2004”
    I’m glad this happen, it show people what waste these lines produce.

  10. bitrex says:

    Those bulbs are not using “wasted” energy from the power lines, but are inductively coupled to the close magnetic field of the lines, not to the far electromagnetic field. The far electromagnetic field is a completely different effect – power can still be drawn from it (like a crystal radio) but nowhere near enough to power all those bulbs.

    Essentially the power lines are acting like the primary of a transformer, and the lights like lots of little secondaries – so yes, this is costing the power company money and calling it “using the ambient energy of the lines” is about the same as siphoning gas from someone’s car to power a generator and saying that the lamps are powered by the “ambient energy” of the car.

    Still looks really pretty though, and the amount of power used was most likely relatively small (the bulbs definitely aren’t operating at their full rating being not plugged in and all), which is probably why the power company allowed the display to stay up.

  11. japroach says:

    excellent analogy bitrex, :P

  12. samurai1200 says:

    yeah, but is it accurate? i’m not understanding it, if anything. what i dont get is how utilizing (or otherwise interacting with) the magnetic field produced by current in a long wire affects the current itself. THAT’s the only way that these bulbs would be “costing” the electricity company money.

  13. hex4def6 says:

    samurai1200 :
    The transformer coupling analogy is a good one.

    Imagine that you had a superconducting wire. It would still have a magnetic field around it, but ideally, there would be not loses in the line at all. Therefore, no “wasted energy.” Yet, this experiment would still work — you could bring a fluorescent tube up to this wire, and get the same effect. Since free energy doesn’t exist, it must be coming from the wire.

    Now, there is a relationship between electric and magnetic fields (That’s why they’re called EM waves). Maxwell et al, pioneered that sort of stuff. There are plenty of books on the subject — a physics textbook will give you the ideas.

  14. o-tang says:

    They increase the impedance in the powerlines so it does indeed cost the power company money.

    Although I doubt they would do something that would give them bad publicity (such as sue the artist). Wouldn’t be surpised if they are sponsoring the artist.

    You could also put out a long cable under the wires in a circle (like a coil) and power your house (etc) with, wich of course is higly illegal, at least where I live.

  15. FriedPope says:

    You’re all right about the transmission of high freq EMF from the power lines. The mercury vapor in florescent lights is excited by the EM field and glows.
    Electric companies are always loosing power in high tension lines through EMF to the ground below. The stolen energy that passes through the bulb wouldn’t be much greater then that of a similar sized tree or bush.

  16. b2theory says:

    Absolutely wrong. There is no high-frequency (MHz band and above) EMF. Additionally, this is no magnetic induction. Those lights are completing a circuit to ground and coupling off of the E-field on the power lines. The E-field decreases at a (1/r^2) rate from the source, in this case a varing line charge. Generally, high tension power lines are transmitting on the order of 300 to 2000 kV. Even with a hundred foot tower you can have hundreds of volts of potential difference. If you find a spot where the cables are relatively close to the ground you can have the thousands of volts needed to turn the bulb on.

    The current in those lines are relatively low. Thus, the B field is also low. This is by design. Current = ohmic heating losses.

    EM wave production requires the creation of perpendicular E and B fields by accelerating and decelerating charges. The wave length of photons from power lines are measured in MILES. Given that the power per photon is inversely proportional to wavelength you can see that these photons are weak compared to say visible light, which has photons measured in hundreds of nanometers.

    Do not get confused. Unless he has the utilities blessing this is theft. It isn’t a minor amount either. If you assume that he has 1300 lights, running 24 hours a day(assuming he isn’t setting this up every time the sun goes down), for 19 days, and the standard consumption of a standard T-12 bulb, this guy STOLE 3000 dollars plus worth of electricity.

    Even worse, how much carbon does it take to produce 60 thousand kWH that he stole to demonstrate “ambient energy”. This guy is a jerk and an idiot.

  17. volkemon says:

    “”Even worse, how much carbon does it take to produce 60 thousand kWH that he stole to demonstrate “ambient energy”. “”

    we’re getting energy from carbon? For all the tech/ know how displayed here this seems like an odd statement.

    However, at 96w/ 8′ tube, the numbers add up. just under 60,000 kw. At my household rate of .05231 USD/kw, this does come to $3138 USD, again right on the money.

    @b2theory- would you please dumb it down a notch for the rest of us? (if possible!!!) You obviosly are familiar with the math and terms. THANKS in advance….this is a facinating topic.

  18. samurai1200 says:

    He probably meant carbon being used up by powerplants creating the electricity…

    i’m still a little confused, but its making a little more sense. i’ll ask my physics professor about it on monday…

  19. samurai1200 says:

    OK, so here we go…

    @b2theory –

    Richard Box’s website, http://www.richardbox.com/ says right on the front page (at least at the time of this reading) that these are “831 fluorescent tubes powered by the electromagnetic field surrounding overhead power lines. 145 x 39 x 1.5 metres. Photo- Peter Dibdin”…
    Of course, this is a different installation (only 831 bulbs in this one), so he may be using a different method… but i doubt it. Is he lying or is b2theory wrong?


    It seems that in the links section of his website, there are articles on BBC News and Slashdot, among others. Both say completely opposite things — BBC News states that these bulbs are leeching from the “electrical fields,” in accordance with b2theory’s post, and Slashdot says he “has used the electromagnetic field generated by overhead transmission cables to power 1300 fluorescent lightbulbs positioned underneath.”


  20. hex4def6 says:

    He definitely seems to assume that he’s using waste energy; from the linked article:

    ” “The result has surpassed all my expectations,” said Box, of the extent to which the power loss along over-head power lines is demonstrated by the display he assembled.”


    “The fluorescent bulbs of Richard Box’s display, “planted” in the ground to pick up “waste emissions from the overhead power lines”.. ”

    Which I think we’ve agreed is pretty much wrong.

    b2theory is right; I think both me and FriedPope were thinking high frequency, which of course is not the case: its still operating at 60Hz, of course. sorry about adding to the confusion on that point; I didn’t really think it out :)

    I think it would be interesting to calculate the real consumption on the bulbs; I doubt they’re operating anywhere near their rated power.

    On a related note: check out this video of a power line inspector. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tzga6qAaBA
    Watch when they approach the wiring… I’m assuming the current flow is in effect charging up the helicopter, capacitor style? I guess when they land they then get another spark :)

  21. samurai1200 says:

    Richard Box has degrees in art, not science, so it’s obvious that he could be confusing magnetic fields with electric fields.

    @hex4def6 that youtube video is awesome! the designing of that helicopter must be complicated… all electronics completely electrically isolated from the body.

  22. b2theory says:

    Sorry before if I seemed like a jerk. I get a little worked up when people, namely the artist, start talking about “energy” and the “EM” forces like its magic. When this happens peoples imaginations runaway on them and you get fear of getting cancer from power lines etc.

    You also have this phenomena going on with people claiming they have created a NEW source of power i.e. a car that runs on water.

    I can understand why Richard Box would get confused. I don’t get why none of his friends at the university tipped him off.

    That video with the helicopter was both beautiful and an excellent example of what is going on with the bulbs.

    The power line can be treated like an infinitely long line charge. At zero meters away from the wire the voltage, relative to ground is what ever they are transmitting at (400 kV in this case). As you move away the voltage drops off as a function of the geometry of the system. If you know your distance you can calculate your voltage. If the voltage is a thousand volts it is pretty much the same as having a thousand volt source. The ability to transfer current through this circuit gets a bit more complicated.

    As the helicopter approaches it is much closer to “ground” potential than the power lines. The air has a “dieelctric break down voltage” of about 3 million volts per meter. This is the point at which air transitions from an insulator to a conductor. Based on the video, it seems like it starts sparking about half a meter a way. Thus there is a potential difference the helicopter and the line of about 1.5 million volts. This seems reasonable. Why doesn’t this blow the helicopter out of the air? The helicopter really isn’t completing a circuit to ground like the light bulbs do.

    In theory…..You wouldn’t need a special helicopter to do this. If it is built properly and you have no ground loops the ground plane of the helicopter gets raised and lowered to whatever the line can charge it to. This is actually what is done in many quality certifications i.e. UL and CE.

    great thread!

  23. o-tang says:

    Actually strong electromagnetic fields can cause cancer. Many (a couple of hundred) epidemiological studies made since the seventies have shown an increased risk for (among other things) leukemia and brain tumors especially among children. (Although the risk is still small it’s something that is considered when building new power lines etc). There are also recent studies showing an increased risk for tumors in the ear from extensive cellphone usage. It’s probably wise to use a headset when talking for longer periods.

    Anyway, back to the lamps: A fluorescent tube works by an electric field inside the tube causing a discharge, and this electric field can come either, as normally, from applying a mains voltage across the tube, or from the electric field produced by a power line. So fluorescent tubes will produce a visible glow under a power line, though usually it is only visible after dark as it is much weaker than the light they normally produce. The current through a fluorescent tube under a power line would probably be 20 – 200 microamps (µA) depending on the field. This is much less than a person can normally perceive, so you can hold the tube yourself under the power line without it hurting. (For comparison, a 10 W tube at 230 V draws 40 mA – 200 times greater).

    The fluorescents aren’t using “waste” energy from the power lines, instead they increase the “waste” from them and is thus stealing power from the grid. It’s kind of hard for me to explain how this works in a simple manner. But the fluorescents will increase the impedance (“resistance”) in the power line which means a loss of energy, and that energy is what’s powering the fluorescents.

    Or simpler: the energy have to come from somewhere… (see first law of thermodynamics)

    So they do take power from the power company, but probably not very much.

  24. b2theory says:


    That is absolutely false. There has been no reproducible study that has shown that let alone hundreds. You are very misinformed. There is no causal link between strong E and B fields and cancer. PERIOD! Stop repeating this. There were tons of studies which looked at the affects of lab animals living in extremely high E and B fields and they found nothing.

    The earth alone has a relatively strong static E field. There are a couple hundred volts of potential difference between your head and your toes. We have been and always be living in it.

    I have always wondered why they never looked at the affect power lines had on property values on the strata of the population. Lifestyle, access to health care, and working conditions are all affected by wealth. Blah blah blah. I think you can see where I am going.

    Cell phones do not create strong E and B fields. They radiate microwave band photons. While this may warm you up, it has NEVER been shown to break apart DNA nor adversely affect any other life critical function. This is reserved for nonionizing radiation. E = hv.Every moments or every day you are exposed to a kilowatt plus of wideband EM radiation with no affect. It is only the wavelengths about 200 nm and below that cause cancer. Wear sunscreen!

  25. chaintool says:

    ummm… I’m sorry to contradict you but there was a study done that shows that strong E, B, and K fields are a leading cause of AIDS…

    Ok, no seriously. I am a little confused how these bulbs are illuminating. Do they have to be grounded and do they need any form of an antenna to recieve the current?

    I know, I know… I have an inferior brain to many of you, I fear I’m just a lowly little cook so I hope ya’ll go easy on me and explain this in terms us simpleminded folks could understand…

  26. o-tang says:

    b2theory: Of course there is, but as I said, it’s very small and nothing the general public have to worry about.

    WHO, for example, has the following to say about EMF:

    Electromagnetic fields and cancer

    Despite many studies, the evidence for any effect remains highly controversial. However, it is clear that if electromagnetic fields do have an effect on cancer, then any increase in risk will be extremely small. The results to date contain many inconsistencies, but no large increases in risk have been found for any cancer in children or adults.

    A number of epidemiological studies suggest small increases in risk of childhood leukemia with exposure to low frequency magnetic fields in the home. However, scientists have not generally concluded that these results indicate a cause-effect relation between exposure to the fields and disease (as opposed to artifacts in the study or effects unrelated to field exposure). In part, this conclusion has been reached because animal and laboratory studies fail to demonstrate any reproducible effects that are consistent with the hypothesis that fields cause or promote cancer. Large-scale studies are currently underway in several countries and may help resolve these issues.

    So well, they are a bit more cautious in their statement, but I don’t see how you can say that there is no evidence what so ever…

    And concerning cellphones: there recently was a study in Sweden showing the ear tumor relation. WHO doesn’t mention it so maybe it was a bit premature, but I think it’s more likely it was too recent to get a mention in their recommendations yet. Although that risk was also small, and only evident after 10 years or more of extensive cellphone use. (there are however other (also very small) negative effects). I have a friend (also a physicist) who study these things who summed it up as “RF fields clearly have some effect on biological tissue, whether it’s harmful or not is unclear, and if it is, the negative effects are small”.

    Again, the risks are very small and nothing to worry about unless you work with these things (design cellphones or power lines etc). But I think it’s wrong to say that there is absolutely no risk what so ever. And even more wrong not to take the possible risks seriously (and even make fun of people who do so). There is (or at least, might very well be) negative health effects, but it’s nothing to worry about unless you decide to build your house and live many years directly under a 400 kV power line.

  27. volkemon says:

    “ummm… I’m sorry to contradict you but there was a study done that shows that strong E, B, and K fields are a leading cause of AIDS…”

    ACK!!! lets get stem cells and global warming in too….

    @b2theory and @o-tang BOTH of you seem to be grounded (bwahahahahhaha) in your arguements, and willing to correct and clarify. I (and others) am(are) being led into knowledge here. THANKS TO BOTH of you.

    @PT- Thanks for putting it on the table. It would be hard to see otherwise.

    After watching the video- those are some AWESOME ‘copter pilots- look at the trees blowing in the wind in the background. Now see how the worker looks like he is stepping off a concrete platform….WOW

  28. tomti says:

    hex4def6 – I think we have 50Hz power here in the UK, not 60Hz, although I don’t know whether the stuff pootling about between pylons is different …

  29. shawnee says:

    schweetness! awsome occurance

  30. shawnee says:

    schweetness! awsome occurance

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