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Is There a Machine That Produces Lightning?



In the past it was hard to predict where lightning would strike. That makes it difficult to research, not helped by the fact that lightning produced in a lab has completely different characteristics. But now a team led by Martin Uman at the International Center for Lightning Research in Florida has developed a simple device that can capture lightning. They wait for a storm and then send up a rocket on a piece of string. The basic condition needed for a natural bolt of lightning is a charge separation.

To catch lightning then, the scientists attach a 700-metre spool of copper wire to the 1.8-metre-tall hobby rocket. The spool is grounded to a strike rod. As the rocket launches into the storm, the wire unspools and a positive electrical discharge shoots upwards. In response a negative charge follows the same path back down to the ground and into the strike rod at the end of the wire. A current then runs back upward, creating the flash known as lightning. Triggered lightning reproduces almost the exact behaviour and effects as the real thing. The whole procedure is recorded by a high-speed camera that delivers a million images per second.

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