Are gases altered by live electricity, such as might be found along a humming electric fence? They could be formed directly or indirectly through effects on EM field, ionization, or hydrolysis - My sole question is whether the gaseous makeup of air is changed by electricity running along a wire.

This is world building because as civilizations acquire technological advancement the consequences of those advancements may impact the people. At least, I hope it counts as world building. I couldn't find an answer on google. There have been links between power lines and health, and I am trying to come up with a possible link on a foreign world.

On this foreign world, I need an electric fence to create a gas that is different in concentration from the surrounding air, by virtue of whether the fence is on or not.

Fence off = Air adjacent to fence is normal air.

Fence on = Air adjacent to fence has some difference in composition compared to 'normal air.' I realize 'normal air' is a bit silly as a phrase but hopefully you understand.

I have considerable discretion in the makeup of the atmosphere, but it is earth-similar as described in comments.

Hope this meets the criteria.

4th edit below.

I've been mulling whether the local gaseous makeup of air is changed by electricity running along a wire. My previous question is on hold, and this one is different anyway.

I couldn't find exactly what I needed on google. The corona effect is close, but on my fictional world the composition of the air is much higher in oxygen. It's not earth. There are two suns, and solar output is weaker. The ice caps are enormous. Some of the help I received on the previous question suggested corona effect. That might work but doesn't really make carbon - containing gases.

The best gas for my world based on the inhabitants (which breathe oxygen but are more severely impacted by carbon monoxide) would be carbon monoxide. Combustion makes this, but not sure electrical arcing would.

Specifically, I need an electric fence to create a gas (CO ideally) that is different in concentration from the surrounding air, by virtue of whether the fence is on or not. I can work with other gases which is why I didn't constrain it before.

I've received tremendous input from the community on the meta forum. Thank you in advance for your help. I've really been struggling with this.

You guys are awesome.

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    $\begingroup$ If you don't get a good response here, this might be a good one for Physics.SE to tackle. I do know that the answer to this depends heavily on the voltages. What sorts of voltages are you looking at? (Also, the health connection to power lines is typically made using EMF, not gasses) $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Sep 21, 2017 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/8642/… $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Sep 21, 2017 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ @DPT Please limit yourself to one question per post. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Sep 21, 2017 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ In addition to ozone, different nitrogen oxides (N2O, NO, NO2) are also formed. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Sep 21, 2017 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ Please don't make answer-invalidating edits. Edits that substantially or completely invalidate existing answers may be rolled back. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Sep 22, 2017 at 20:08

4 Answers 4


The electric breakdown in air produces all sorts of radical, ions and some more stable compounds. The temperature created in the current flow during discharge can be quite high, high enough to scramble most gas molecules into all sorts of small pieces which recombine (or fall apart) into other species. I mean you can smell ozone around high voltage equipment - apparently you didn't know that. As for what specifically is formed, wow, that's a really hard question to answer. The more serious question is what is detected? (Because a chemical has to persist for "a while" to be detected, instead of only existing for an instant to have been "created"). What persists long enough to be detected depends on what is around. Especially important are pollutants like sulfur dioxide and organics. In pure humid air, you've got the obvious ions, and species like H2O2, NOx, O3. I wouldn't expect any NH3 (ammonia) but I wouldn't be too surprised if it was found, either. This may not seem related, but it is: did you know that you can detect x-ray emissions from Scotch Tape being pulled off of a surface when it's in a vacuum? (They don't detect it in air, not because it doesn't happen, but because the air absorbs the (faint) x-rays before they can be detected).

There's a LOT of chemistry that is going on all around us that is just happening too quickly for us to see. And of course if you're into scifi, you know about the experiments with lightning (arc discharge) making polymers which used to be the most popular explanation of how life originated on Earth. Electric discharge is actually NOT well understood. What we do know is that it is definitely powerful enough to make all sorts of (random) chemicals. They use electrical discharge to cut holes (with very precise dimensions) in thick, thick steel. It packs a wallop.

So, to answer your question in a general way. Take H, C, O, N as the (atomic) constituents of air (as CO2, H2O, O2, and N2) and assemble ANY molecule with say, 3 or fewer of any of them. Chances are some of that is made. CO (carbon monoxide)? sure. NO, NO2 ? I'd bet on it. H2O2? Probably...So write this HwCxOyNz and vary w, x, y and z from 0 to 3 and you probably have listed something which has at least transient existence. H, H2, H3 (er...maybe) N, N2 (already present), N3 etc., HN, H2N, HN2, etc. etc.

  • $\begingroup$ Many people have smelled ozone, but they aren't aware of what it is, unless someone tells them. Many electric air cleaners have ozonators in them to 'freshen' the air. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2017 at 3:20
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    $\begingroup$ Why should I register my account? I am sure I commented on this before, but currently you cannot easily revisit all your answers and questions and you can't collect reputation, meaning you will never get new privileges like voting or commenting on other peoples posts or posting on Meta or visiting the chat or .... You should really think about registering so that you don't lose your progress every time you close your browser window. $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Sep 22, 2017 at 6:54
  • $\begingroup$ In the end, I think I will pick this answer. It has a lot of minutiae that I did not know, and i think on my world I can create a believable detectable change around an electric fence using this info, that fits my world.. But I appreciate all the feedback, and if I could pick two answers then the corona effect also is very useful. My fictional heroes thank you, as they can now get into the guarded complex to save the planet. $\endgroup$
    – SFWriter
    Sep 25, 2017 at 23:38

Think Nikola Tesla. He did a lot of experiments with electric fields, electrical discharges, and their effects. He developed the florescent light long before Edison marketed the incandescent bulb, and he had is workshop lit by them. He was not, however, a capitalist, and he had no inclination to market any of his inventions. Otherwise, we would never have had the incandescent bulb. The only marketing advantage of the incandescent bulb was that it used a LOT of electricity (very wasteful) and Edison's backers wanted to sell electricity, not light bulbs. Thus, they wanted wasteful incandescent, not economical florescent.

You need to differentiate between electrical discharge and electricity running through wires. Electrical discharging through an air gap (using the air as a conductor) certainly changes the air. Lightning is the prime example. (Florescent lights are another.) Ozone (a variation of the Oxygen molecule) is produced, along with anti-matter, and a whole host of other chemicals, depending on what is in the atmosphere. In fact, an electrical discharge can separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. The heat and energy given off can cause combustion of atmospheric gases. This can be as small as sparks given off by a poorly insulated conductor between the conductor and ground. This would be the 'sizzling' or 'sparking' sound. And no, there is no such thing as a 'perfect insulator'. There is always electron discharge from a conductor. See effects of lightning on the atmosphere

Depending on where ozone resides, it can protect or harm life on Earth. Most ozone resides in the stratosphere (a layer of atmosphere between 8 and 25 miles high), where it shields life on Earth from the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation. At the surface, ozone is a harmful pollutant that causes damage to lung tissue and plants. In the tropopause (surface to 8 miles high) ozone also is a radiatively active gas that affects climate.

As for conduction through a wire, it depends on whether it is ac or dc. Our ac transmission lines 'hum' because of the continuing oscillation of the magnetic field around them, causing the wires to vibrate. Both ac and dc wires give off an electromagnetic field which can be detected. The dc field is constant, while the ac field is constantly switching polarity. Yes, these fields DO have an effect on polarized air particles. That is how electrostatic air filters work - they impart an electric charge on the particle, which is then attracted to the opposite charged collection plate. You can even get air currents circulating around an electric field, if enough air particles are ionized. Plasma jets are another example of particles in the air being influenced by magnetic fields and electricity. See link for example.

I remember visiting the Radio Canada transmission center in the Maritimes - the one that broadcast the radio signals into Eastern Europe and Russia. These transmissions were so powerful, that you could only be in the main transmission room for a very brief time. Otherwise, you suffered severe health effects. The guide brought in a florescent tube (that lit in her hand) to demonstrate how much energy was in the air. You could actually hear the broadcast, because the enormous energies involved turned every metallic magnetic object into a vibrating speaker. Even the air became a speaker.

The 'over the horizon' radar used on Canadian navy ships is so powerful that no crew member can be on deck when it is switched on.

You also have to consider capacitance. There is always some level of capacitance along any electrical conductor. The capacitance between water and the conductor in the cables that transverse the ocean between continents is a major factor in signal loss. But capacitance occurs in conductors that go through air as well. This capacitance effect 'locks in' ionized air particles to the conductor. Much more prevalent in dc than in ac transmission.

As an aside, the electrical field around a high transmission wire is enough to cause fluorescent lights to glow on their own, if brought close to the wire. Some farmers that are very close to high voltage lines have been known to light their barns just by puting a florescent tube in them. Unfortunately, there is no 'off' button.

Another reference you might want to investigate is coronal discharge.

In air, coronas generate gases such as ozone (O3) and nitric oxide (NO), and in turn nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and thus nitric acid (HNO3) if water vapor is present.

from coronal discharge.

So in answer to your question, yes a sufficiently electrified world could create sufficient electrical discharge and EMF effects to effect a multitude of gasses around it, especially any gas that is or can be ionized.

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    $\begingroup$ Antimatter! Do you have a source for that? $\endgroup$
    – brendan
    Sep 21, 2017 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ @brendan Yes, I have given it before. Lots of hits if you google 'lightning and antimatter'. It is fully researched. See links for instance. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2017 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for antimatter. Didn't know there was research in the context of thunder storms, thank you. $\endgroup$ Sep 25, 2017 at 12:14

Since you are speculating about an alien world, it will depend on the composition of the atmosphere. Arcing current on Earth should produce similar gasses to lightning, ozone and nitrogen oxides. So your arcing in an alien atmosphere would likely depend on the dominant gasses in the atmosphere. The other issue this raises, is that unless your alien planet did not have much lightning for whatever reason, it would take a lot of arcing electronics to surpass what is being naturally produced.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe bumper cars are really, really popular. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2017 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Gary Walker Or perhaps lots and lots of Tesla coils. Tesla, in fact, investigated the use of his coils for the transmission of electricity over great distances, but he couldn't aim it. Humans made great antennae. But his lab was always full of ozone. Some people proposed a bank of huge Tesla coils as a long distance weapon. Except that they did not differentiate between friend and foe. But to protect a planet from invasion where all the inhabitants were insulated underground? Quite useful. Like harnessing lightning as a weapon. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2017 at 18:42

Did a little reading and I think what you're looking for is the corona effect.

This is caused when the voltage is high enough to cause ionization in the air surrounding the line, which is caused "by the discharge of energy that occurs when the electrical field strength on the conductor surface is greater than the 'breakdown strength' (the field intensity necessary to start a flow of electric current) of the air surrounding the conductor.". This would cause a humming noise, and possibly a bit of ozone at high enough voltages.

Any time electricity is flowing you get at least a bit of EM field. The EM field is non-ionizing at the kind of wavelengths that are created with electricity, and so any ozone would probably be minimal compared to the corona effect.

enter image description here

Edit: (copied from other related question)
Since you are specifically looking for CO, and since it is specifically for one set of wires, and carbon monoxide is caused by burning something with carbon, then this set of wires could have a coating that is slowly burning when the power is on.
It could be an insulator that is just breaking down and buring under the very high current, or it could be some pollution that has built up on the wire that burns off when it is powered up.

enter image description here

This would especially be true if there was a short somewhere along the line, which could cause the wire to heat up much higher than normal.

  • $\begingroup$ A few points of clarification, for accuracy. 'EMF' correctly is 'Electro Motive Force', more commonly known as voltage. It is the electrical pressure that CAUSES current flow, not the RESULT of current flow. Counter EMF is the resultant voltage caused by the field caused by current flow in a wire moving through a magnetic field. However, in popular terminology, the Electro Magnetic Field is also confusingly abbreviated as EMF, although correctly it should be EM Field. Ozone is created by any spark, even the spark caused by a switch opening and closing. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2017 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ @JustinThyme Ah, I will clarify that I meant EM Field, not Electro Motive Force. The Ozone created by a spark is what I'm talking about with the corona effect, where current his higher than the airs breakdown strength. This is amplified by breaks in the conductor, jagged points, corrosion, wet weather, etc. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Sep 21, 2017 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ I think the corona effect may well be what I am looking for, TFT. $\endgroup$
    – SFWriter
    Sep 22, 2017 at 5:58

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