Researchers at the U.S. Air Force Academy have created a ball-shaped flash of plasma that closely resembles the near-mythical “ball lightning” reported for millennia.
It’s estimated that only one in a million lightning strikes produces the ball lightning phenomenon, which makes it impossible to study in nature.
Though it’s rare, ball lighting is so stunning that there are more than 10,000 written accounts of the bright, spherical lights in the sky which linger for seconds longer that a true lightning bolt. Here’s one example of these lightning balls in nature:
A glowing orb of ball lightning was even rumoured to be what killed 18th Century scientist Georg Wilhelm Richmann. The glowing balls can range from a fraction of a centimeter to more than a foot in diameter. They are often misidentified as UFOs.
Nikola Tesla was the first person known to have recreated a ball lightning-like charge in the lab, in 1904. In the hundred years since then, only a few researchers have successfully repeated Tesla’s accomplishment.
Producing ball lighting in the lab not only disproves UFO claims, but allows scientists to study its properties and get a better understanding of the conditions inside thunderstorms that produce it.
Russian scientists successfully made plasma balls in the lab in 2002 — catching the attention of Mike Lindsay, then a student at the U.S. Air Force Academy, who wondered if he could recreate and study the phenomenon.
“When I heard about these plasmas that were being created in Russia, that looked like ball plasma, a plasma that could live without a power source for seconds, that struck me as exciting,” Lindsay told Business Insider.
Lindsay’s team has recreated the previous experiments, while managing to extend the life of the ball by making adjustments to the mechanisms that create it.
To recreate the previous experiments, Lindsay and his research team filled a bucket with a salt solution, and then ran a long, tube-like electrode vertically from the bottom of the bucket to just above the surface.
Then they ran a strong electrical charge through the metal rod. The reaction of the electrical charge above the electrolyte solution created an arc that then floated above the surface and took on a ball-like shape — the plasma balls seen in these GIFs.
“We even tried it with Gatorade,” Lindsay said. “It works.”
By adjusting both the acidity of the electrolyte solution and the voltage in the electrical charge, Lindsay’s team has managed to get the ball to last longer than it ever has in previous experiments. They were even able to video tape it.
Lindsay published his results in the June 14 issue of the Journal of Physical Chemistry.
Their findings suggest that a bolt of lightning is actually a channel of plasma that conducts an electrical charge for an instant — a second at most.
They found that what makes ball lightning different is that the plasma can linger for several seconds, rather than instantly disappearing back into the atmosphere.
The scientists can now reliably produce this phenomenon in the lab, letting them study it in greater detail than ever before.
Here’s another video of ball lighting in nature — you can see why people sometimes confuse it with UFOs:
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