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Working On Man Made Lightning

Soulskill posted more than 2 years ago | from the i'll-order-a-dozen dept.

Hardware 67

New submitter PerlJedi writes "There is a very cool write up on the Make blog about an effort to build the world's largest tesla coils. Quoting: '"Somehow lightning can generate huge discharges with only about a fifth of the voltage per foot that lab discharges require," Leyh explains. "The part that especially fascinates me is that this mysterious ability kicks in around 200' in length, which is right at the edge of what we can produce with a practical machine." Leyh wants to see if humans can replicate this voltage economy effect, and has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the building of two 10-story Tesla Coil towers (obviously superseding his current coil-size world record).'"

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I feel sorry for the house. (4, Funny)

jellomizer (103300) | more than 2 years ago | (#38086880)

I feel sorry for that house in the middle. It looks like a nice one too. But to be placed under massive Tesla coils will greatly reduce resell property. Perhaps it is one of those older houses where the ghetto was built around it.

Re:I feel sorry for the house. (4, Funny)

Scaba (183684) | more than 2 years ago | (#38087252)

I believe it's Dan Aykroyd's house in the 1981 film Neighbors [youtube.com] (a film that could have been great but suffered too many rewrites).

Re:I feel sorry for the house. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38087464)


We should build these towers on the former site of Tesla's research laboratory,
ONLY as a tribute to him, his contributions and genius.


Re:I feel sorry for the house. (1)

Speare (84249) | more than 2 years ago | (#38087944)

The image with the giant Tesla coil looming over a suburban house reminded me of that horrible Dan Aykroyd / John Belushi movie, Neighbors.

Obligatory (1)

mx+b (2078162) | more than 2 years ago | (#38086920)

I'm absolutely electrified to see the results of this experiment! I would be shocked if he doesn't get enough funding to try it.

Kidding aside, I too am curious about why lightning can exist at lower voltages. Do longer distances allow for more pathways in the air, where enough variances in humidity etc, to allow lower dielectric breakdown on average?

Re:Obligatory (1)

Moryath (553296) | more than 2 years ago | (#38089208)

It's a good working theory. I wonder if we'd also see a measurable difference in pristine air as opposed to polluted air, similar to the dielectric difference between pure and impure (read: soapy, salty, etc) water?

Re:Obligatory (1)

Jarik C-Bol (894741) | more than 2 years ago | (#38091458)

I had always understood that lightning exists in two stages. an initial pop that causes an ionized channel in the atmosphere, and the second, 'real' lightning strike, that follows the ionized path to the ground. I would assume that the ionization is responsible in some way for the reduced voltage requirement.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dukkO7c2eUE&feature=related [youtube.com]
this video was shown in the article, but sort of shows what i'm talking about. when one of those initial charges finally grounds, the major bolt follows the path it took.
I remember reading a few years back about a crew out in the desert in New Mexico that was able to induce lightning strikes using (if i recall correctly) a UV laser, which they would aim at the clouds and pulse, creating that ionized channel for a strike to follow. Trouble was, its that strike tended to hit the equipment they made it with, making it expensive to study the phenomenon.

What (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38086936)

could possibly go wrong?

Re:What (3, Insightful)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | more than 2 years ago | (#38087062)

could possibly go wrong?

J.P. Morgan could buy out all the patents and squash the project when he realizes there's no where to stick a meter.

Man-made (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38086942)

"Man made lightning" and "Man-made lightning" mean two different things.

Re:Man-made (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38087732)

Hyphen, bitches! Learn it, know it, use it!!

Re:Man-made (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38088114)

Hyphen-bitches! Know 'em, use 'em, slap 'em!

In soviet Russia... (5, Interesting)

TheBlackMan (1458563) | more than 2 years ago | (#38086956)

In soviet Russia they actually have some of these already:


Re:In soviet Russia... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38087394)

In Soviet Russia Telsa Coils You!

Re:In Cold War America also..... (1)

billstewart (78916) | more than 2 years ago | (#38087584)

Harry Diamond Labs used to have a place down near Albuquerque that they used for zapping things with lightning and other big electromagnetic pulses. If you needed to simulate what happened to an airplane, radio system, or telephone switch near a nuclear explosion, that was the place to go. I don't know if it's still operational - Wikipedia indicates that HDL got absorbed into the Army Research Labs in the 90s, but at least the equipment should be in better shape in dry New Mexico than in Russian climates.

Completely misread the title... (3, Funny)

Oswald McWeany (2428506) | more than 2 years ago | (#38086976)

Completely misread the title as

"Man made lighting" - I was getting all excited thinking they would soon be able to add photo-luminescent genes into people.

You know at the bars all the men are going to want to hit on the girl whose buttocks glow like a fire fly.

Re:Completely misread the title... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38087130)

And now that you read it correctly, are you thinking of Emperor Palpatine-style powers?

Buttocks (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38087586)

Yeah, and girls in bars generally prefer guys who use language like 'buttocks'. :-)

Re:Completely misread the title... (2)

thelexx (237096) | more than 2 years ago | (#38087730)

I was personally hoping the phrase 'piss lightning and crap thunder' had gained new relevance...

Re:Completely misread the title... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38087770)

Mmm Buns.

Re:Completely misread the title... (1)

necro81 (917438) | more than 2 years ago | (#38088274)

At first I thought they were seeking to allow people to throw lightning bolts. Dark side of the force, anyone?

Maybe... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38087036)

Maybe something happens in storm weather that you aren't accounting for.

Want a pic... (3, Funny)

Sez Zero (586611) | more than 2 years ago | (#38087076)

I don't care if it works or not, I just want a pic of me in front of two 10-story tall Tesla Coil towers wearing my xkcd [xkcd.com] shirt.

And perhaps a white lab coat, monocle and puffy white wig.

And pants, yes pants as well.

Re:Want a pic... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38087622)

And pants, yes pants as well.

Came On! We all know secretly want to do pant-less and underwear-less.

Re:Want a pic... (1)

Sez Zero (586611) | more than 2 years ago | (#38089162)

I said nothing about underwear; clearly I'd be going commando.

Although, yes, you got me. I'd prefer to just be wearing the wig.

Tesla trooper reporting (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38087084)

Rubber boots in motion.

Re:Tesla trooper reporting (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38088666)


i can save him time and money (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38087132)

The reason for the "mysterious ability" of lightning is that the capacitor nature uses is made of a different material than the ones we use.
It goes like this |earth/another cloud| air molecules |clouds(water vapor)|.

AC vs DC? (5, Insightful)

Artraze (600366) | more than 2 years ago | (#38087316)

What confuses me is that there seems to be a disconnect regarding this project vs. lightning... Tesla coils operate on relatively high frequency AC whereas lightning is a very slow DC process. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say the lightning can get away with lower voltages because the charge buildup allows for partial ionization at charge concentration points (e.g. a lightning rod) which can create ion streams and render the atmosphere partially conductive thus reducing the required potential. That may not be quite right, but still I find it odd that one would try to replicate lightning using such a fundamentally different design; a marx generator seems far more appropriate. Does anyone know if they're planning on rectifying the output? I guess it's theoretically possible...

Also, Tesla coils generate a _huge_ amount of broadband RF interference (not to mention sound). It seems to me that building this thing would be far less difficult than simply being allowed to build it (and for good reason!). Do they have a location picked out and have they talked to local government and the FCC?

Re:AC vs DC? (1)

marcosdumay (620877) | more than 2 years ago | (#38087882)

Rectifying a signal that is able to jump over 200' of air?! Have they started to gather funds for the wold's largest pair of diodes?

Theoretically, you could do that with 250V diodes... I'd put them on a serial/parallel mesh for dealing with some of them burning, but putting diodes in paralel isn't that easy.

Re:AC vs DC? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38090732)

Uh, I doubt very much that you'd use solid state technology for rectifying that much voltage. Even if it were possible (and I'm not sure it would be), it would be crazy expensive. If it's DC they want, they're much more likely to build one of these: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cockcroft-Walton_generator

Re:AC vs DC? (2)

Stoutlimb (143245) | more than 2 years ago | (#38088076)

Considering that physicists suspect that lightning is triggered by vertical ionized trails in the atmosphere caused by cosmic rays, the experimenters may have to also use a portable cosmic ray generator to get their machine to work.

Re:AC vs DC? (2)

mark_reh (2015546) | more than 2 years ago | (#38088346)

Yeah, I don't get the point of this project except that it's going to make big sparks. AC vs DC arc physics are quite different, as is the energy contained in the discharge of lightning vs the spark from a Tesla coil. Lightning can produce thousands if not millions of amps (the source of thunder) whereas a Tesla coil might come close to matching the voltages involved, it can't produce anywhere near the same current. I think this whole thing is just some hobbyist's wet-dream Tesla coil project and he's trying to get others to fund it for him.

Burn it down (3, Informative)

wsanders (114993) | more than 2 years ago | (#38088390)

It may be cool, but I'm a ham radio operator and if you build this thing anywhere within 10 miles of my house, I will come over and burn it down.

This is just a toy for rich techies. There are plenty of places where lightning is frequent enough that if you build a structure to attract it, you will get lots of hits from the real thing:

http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/images/map.jpg [noaa.gov]

Re:Burn it down (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38091824)

The radiated field component from the towers will be actually very low, since the wavelength at 5200Hz [about 57.6 kilometres] is long compared to the size of the towers. In addition the towers are oppositely phased, so the resultant electric field tends to cancel at long distances.

The experiments will be carried out in a suitable remote area of the Nevada desert, far from residential areas, so criminal reactions shouldn't be necessary.

Regarding lightning initiation studies, unfortunately studying the nature of lightning strikes at the earth attachment point doesn't provide much insight into the nature of the actual initiation process at the cloud level. This is why the mechanisms of lightning initiation continues to confound experts in the field. -Greg Leyh

Re:Burn it down (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38092402)

You could just leave it on to keep the bad guys at bay. ;>

Re:Burn it down (1)

jenningsthecat (1525947) | more than 2 years ago | (#38101996)

Even if the fundamental is only around 5 kHz, (and it could be higher), there will be a very large number of harmonics, likely of sufficient amplitude to wreak havoc on ham and other communications. And even when a radio signal is well outside a receiver's frequency range, if it's sufficiently strong it can still cause interference by overloading the front end. You really DON'T want a multi-story Tesla coil operating within many miles of your radios and other sensitive electronic equipment.

Re:Burn it down (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38093694)

"This is just a toy for rich techies."

And in 2011, what is ham radio?

Re:AC vs DC? (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 2 years ago | (#38088522)

Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't many types of lightning involve a return stroke? Isn't that AC in a way, just with only one wave?

Re:AC vs DC? (1)

Commontwist (2452418) | more than 2 years ago | (#38089890)

I put in my guess as to 'why'.

Lightning causes the 'starting' bolt up in the air to ionize and creates some plasma. Now, lightning is electrons which, when moving, create magnetic fields. Even straight copper lines can cause RF interference when voltage oscillates because of this effect. The thin 'coating' of plasma around the lightning could be creating an electromagnetic field of it's own due to induction that only becomes strong enough when enough plasma is created -- 200 ft or more. Thus, the lightning bolt creates a electromagnetic plasma 'pipe' that the lightning bolt can use to fly down the long journey to earth. Once the tunnel is complete the ionizing trail remains long enough for the bolt that goes up.

Naturally, this plasma is unstable and too much lightning might break through the plasma tunnel to create new tunnels repelled by the other branches.

Eh, that my pop theory.

Re:AC vs DC? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38091344)

yes, there is a big difference between ac tesla coil sparks and lightning bolts. lightning starts because there is a LARGE charge separation between the cloud and ground. A small part of that charge (from one side or the other) concentrates enough to cause a local breakdown creating a leader of about 50-100m (funny, close to that 200' limit they are pushing). after the leader progresses that far the charge has spread out enough that the leader stops momentarily. more charge is pushed down that ionized leader until enough has accumulated at the end to break down the air again and jump another 50-100m... the process repeats, propagating the leader at about 1/3c. when the leader approaches the opposing charge it attracts it causing it to concentrate and create a connecting streamer, again in the 50-100m range, that completes the ionized path. surprisingly enough it then takes time for the charge to drain out of the channel (THIS is what you see and hear) before there can be more charge can flow into the channel to create subsequent strokes.(lots of lightning consists of 2 or more discharges through the same channel). So the distance isn't bridged in a single step, it takes hundreds of small steps being pushed by large monopolar charges to create the ionized channel that eventually carries the discharge.

Re:AC vs DC? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38091582)

Hi All,

It's true that Tesla Coils are AC, but these coils will operate at very low frequencies doe to their size; around 5200Hz.

At this low frequency the flat-top of the sinewave is long compared to the time for a relativistic avalanche to develop. So for the purposes of lightning initiation studies the source is effectively DC. Both polarities are available for comparison, as a bonus. -Greg Leyh

Re:AC vs DC? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38092302)

Are thy fast enough to go back in time

It's a mystery? (1)

surd1618 (1878068) | more than 2 years ago | (#38087678)

Resistance is divided by the area of the resistor. For instance, to resistors in parallel have R 1/(1/R1 +1/R2), which makes the R drop mighty fast for many resistors. When I learned as a teen that lightning is in the 10's to 100's of millions of volts, I thought that sounded really low for spanning such distances. But the resistor (sky) is obviously really big, so it made sense, I thought.

So basically what I'm trying to say is that I never considered it a mystery, but I guess that was just my ignorance. Also, according to this idea of mine, having the simulated lightning jumping between two points greatly narrows the size of the resistor. If he was running one tower and looking for the greatest arc distance in any direction then I suppose he would observe arcs more in keeping with the lengths lightning achieves.

Also I saw in a book from WWII era, that St. Elmo's fire-type glow was observed in 50 V submarine systems using gigantic amperages. So perhaps there is some poorly-understood effect that gives 5x arcs to lightning, but it may be an amperage-based corona effect that he wouldn't get from amperages that are relatively low compared to lightning.

Re:It's a mystery? (1)

marcosdumay (620877) | more than 2 years ago | (#38087956)

It's not that simple. Yeah, some electricity will run through the insulating air, but not a lightining. Lightininh only happens when the potential becomes so big that part of the air ionizes, and starts conducting better. And theoretically, the ionization will happen in the volume between the charges, it doesn't matter what is around it. The size of the sky isn't really relevant, or at least shouldn't be.

Re:It's a mystery? (1)

surd1618 (1878068) | more than 2 years ago | (#38106294)

The bulk of the conduction goes through the lowest-resistance path, which is also going to be the first one to connect (more conduction = more ionization = faster-growing path). Also, it need not be the shortest path. Therefore, the greater the volume, the lower the resistance. I think you misunderstood my initial post.

Re:It's a mystery? (1)

marcosdumay (620877) | more than 2 years ago | (#38109258)

The bulk of the current pass through the shortest path because the elctrical field there is strong, and you need strong fields to get ionization. After some ionization, there is very little resistence, so the current passes there. Stronger field = more ionization = less resistence = more current (and current negatively feeds that cycle, so the lightining stops). You can't do calculations with constant resistivity when the resistivity is changing by several orders of magnitude.

At least, that is what theory says. But the theory also says that you need a much highter field...

Old news ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38087726)

Man made lightning has been around for years [wikipedia.org]

I'm walking on lightning... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38088132)

...and it's starting to feel good!

Lighting (1)

Brucelet (1857158) | more than 2 years ago | (#38088396)

I read lighting rather than lightning and wondered why slashdot was posting a story a century late

Re:Lighting (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38090460)

A century? Pretty sure they had man made lighting before 1911 AD. Also before 1911 BC.

Tesla has Come Back! (1)

MazTaim (1376) | more than 2 years ago | (#38088744)

Oh, you silly Tesla. Only you would want to build a giant coil of self-naming.

Who cares about 10ft high towers. (1)

s0litaire (1205168) | more than 2 years ago | (#38088848)

...when you can wear one as a personal MIDI player...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEgaI6WouQ0 [youtube.com]

Tesla Coil Music (1)

Y.A.A.P. (1252040) | more than 2 years ago | (#38091958)

I've got to admit that when I read that they were looking to build the world's largest Tesla Coils, I was wondering how loud the music they would be playing on them would be.

The show from playing the Dr. Who theme with Tesla coils [youtube.com] that huge would be unbelievable.

And like earlier commenters, I think they're missing out on too many variables as to how lightning accomplishes what they're trying to duplicate in order for this endeavor to be of any practical use or gain any substantial further useful knowledge.

Shocking (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38090484)

And poor conduct, too!

Why a tesla coil? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38090594)

Why does he want to build a tesla coil? Why not build a lightning machine?
I'm not sure what they are called exactly, but At my university we have one that is about 20m if I remember correctly.
It's basically a bunch of capacitors that you charge up in parallel and then discharge in series to create the required voltage or something like that.

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