Lightning is one of those grand, awe-inspiring forces of nature. Watching a bolt of lightning cut through the sky during a howling thunderstorm is somehow simultaneously elegant and vicious.
Unfortunately, while lightning storms can be beautiful to watch, they're not exactly easy to study. After all, the actual flashes last for only 30 microseconds (on average) — obviously, scientists can't just walk up to one and take a closer look. What's even worse is that lighting isn't really predictable. While it is possible for researchers to influence where a bolt may strike, controlling when it hits is another matter entirely.
That's what makes the "Lightning Machine" so brilliant. Instead of hoping and waiting for lighting to strike in a predictable manner, a team of scientists at the University of Florida have found a way to trigger their own lightning bolts.
It's not thanks to some hugely expensive piece of next-generation meteorological equipment, either. Researchers from the International Center for Lightning Research and Testing have found a way to generate lightning bolts from nothing but some hobby rockets and copper wire.
Essentially, Martin Uman and his team have created immense portable lightning rods. While more traditional lightning rods are rooted to the structure they stand on, Uman's Lightning Machine can be taken directly into the heart of the storm, which immediately eliminates a fair chunk of waiting time — no more hoping that a storm will also come with lightning strikes.
Once the setup is in place, a 6-foot-tall hobby rocket (like the ones you build in school, only better) is attached to the end of a 2,300-foot spool and shot into the air. During its ascent, the wire unspools and sends a positive discharge directly into the storm itself; said discharge can reach heights of roughly seven miles.
At its peak, the positive discharge stops flowing for a fraction of a second. Then, a negative charge follows the same path back down to the ground and into the machine's strike rod. From there, the charge rockets back upward, causing the bright flash of light that most people associate with lightning. It sounds complicated, but the result is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
So, why trigger a lightning bolt? Well, according to Uman, triggered bolts and natural lightning are almost the exact same thing (from a physical standpoint, at least). This means that research is much more predictable and easier to manage, and it is far simpler than waiting for a storm to brew and hoping that lightning will strike. Uman can even prepare ahead of time, which allows for the use of extremely high-speed photography: think 1,000,000 frames per second (for reference, the slow-motion feature on your iPhone records at 240 fps).
The results are already starting to come in: Uman and his team recently confirmed that most lightning strikes aren't powerful enough to crack the containment casing on nuclear waste, and that some low-frequency waves in Earth's upper atmosphere may be able to enchance modern-day GPS technology.
It may sound strange at first, but harnessing lightning could lead to some big advancements, and not just in terms of predicting the weather.
Oh, and one last thing: don't try this at home. For more information on the team's work, you can head to their official website.