Friday, February 2, 2007

Secret of Ball Lightning Discovered

Brazilian scientists may have solved a shocking scientific mystery by creating ball lightning in the lab.

Art © Steve Ditko; Spidy & Electro © Marvel Comics
People have reported seeing ball lightning in nature for hundreds of years, but there is no scientific consensus as to what causes the phenomenon. Now scientists have created orbs of electricity about the size of golf balls that mimic natural ball lightning. The fluffy-looking spheres spin, throw off sparks, and vibrate.

The balls have been reported to melt glass windows, burn objects, and even kill people—notably the 18th-century electricity researcher Georg Richmann. A few years ago it was proposed that when lightning strikes a surface, like the Earth's silica-rich soil, a vapor is formed. This silicon vapor may condense into particles that combine with oxygen in the air to slowly burn with the chemical energy of oxidation. Pavão and Paiva have spent two years testing the theory with a simple experiment.

Most of the artificial orbs lasted two to five seconds, but at least one has survived as long as eight seconds—approximating natural ball lightning and far exceeding previous efforts to create the phenomenon in the lab.

“Now we are producing balls [of lightning] as a result of silicon combustion. I believe that with our results, ball lightning is losing its status [as a] mystery." Link: National Geographic News.

Here’s the experiements in action: