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Getting a grasp on lightning

April 10th, 2013 by Gene
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Mark Twain said it first: thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but lightning does the work. We’ll watch. Today, on Engineering Works.

Everybody knows about lightning. Lightning is those dramatic white forks across the sky during thunderstorms. It’s what makes the thunder boom. It also strikes tall trees and people in exposed places. Lightning strikes kill between 75 and 150 people every year, and injures as many as 5,000.

We know a lot about what lightning does. But we know very little about what causes lightning in the first place. Lightning is electricity, like the electricity that powers our refrigerators and iPads. But it’s very different. Natural lightning jumps from one place to another, or arcs, much easier than less powerful electric arcs. We don’t know why. And we know hardly anything about why lightning happens at all.

A California electrical engineer has a plan to find out more. He’s building two 10-story-tall Tesla coils, powerful electrical transformers that can boost standard 120-volt household power to between a million volts and 100-million volts. That’s enough to light up a fluorescent tube 50 feet away, and make an arc almost as long as a football field. Researchers say that’s far enough that the arcs begin to act like real lightning. Right now we don’t know much about how arcs that big behave, or why. Being able to produce lightning on demand should help us learn more.

You can keep your lightning at a distance, thank you very much. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: At first, this sounds like somebody spending a lot of money to play with lightning. But high-powered electricity and how it behaves could have an impact on how we deal with producing, storing and moving electric power. What do you think?

For more:

http://gizmodo.com/5861712/the-worlds-biggest-tesla-coil-is-about-to-have-some-competition

http://www.geek.com/articles/geek-cetera/scientist-building-worlds-largest-tesla-coils-to-research-lightning-20111128/

http://www.gizmag.com/worlds-largest-tesla-coils/20653/?utm_source=Gizmag+Subscribers&utm_campaign=d882883012-UA-2235360-4&utm_medium=email

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2065138/Engineers-seek-funds-world-s-largest-Tesla-coil.html

http://www.uic.edu/labs/lightninginjury/ltnfacts.htm

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