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Power Science

Ball Lightning Created In the Lab 190

Posted by kdawson
from the hot-stuff dept.
EWAdams writes to point us to a New Scientist report that the mysterious phenomenon of ball lighting has now been created in a Brazilian research lab. The phenomenon has long been reported anecdotally but never explained or understood. Scientists have devised numerous possible explanations, including mini black holes left over from the Big Bang, but have had little success in producing working examples. From the article: "A more down-to-earth theory... is that ball lightning forms when lightning strikes soil, turning any silica in the soil into pure silicon vapor. As the vapor cools, the silicon condenses into a floating aerosol bound into a ball by charges that gather on its surface, and it glows with the heat of silicon recombining with oxygen. To test this idea, a [Brazilian] team... took wafers of silicon just 350 micrometers thick, placed them between two electrodes and zapped them with currents of up to 140 amps. Then... they moved the electrodes slightly apart, creating an electrical arc that vaporised the silicon. The arc spat out glowing fragments of silicon but also, sometimes, luminous orbs the size of ping-pong balls that persisted for up to 8 seconds." Here is a movie of the phenomenon.
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Ball Lightning Created In the Lab

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  • Slashdotted Video? (Score:5, Informative)

    by gbulmash (688770) * <.semi_famous. .at. .yahoo.com.> on Sunday January 14, 2007 @06:19AM (#17601120) Homepage Journal
    Looks like the video link is already Slashdotted. But the video also seems to be all over YouTube (particularly since the story is a few days old). Here's a link to it at YouTube [youtube.com].

    Is ball lightning supposed to bounce around the ground like that? I thought it floated. 'Course, I could be mistaken.

    - Greg
    • by Brian Gordon (987471) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @06:23AM (#17601130)
      "Ball lightning is also said to have an odd motion such as looping and the appearance of bouncing along the ground." (wikipedia [wikipedia.org])
    • by Cyberax (705495) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @06:38AM (#17601192)
      I think, it will fly if there's a significant potential difference between the ground and air, as it can be during a thunderstorm when the earth and clouds become like capacitor plates.

      In this case a conducting plasma ball will move along the lines of resulting electric field, but because earth landscape is not flat, it will move in rather strange trajectories.
    • by $RANDOMLUSER (804576) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @07:06AM (#17601344)
      I think there's some ball lightning coming out of that server.
      • by marcello_dl (667940) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @07:28AM (#17601444) Homepage Journal
        > I think there's some ball lightning coming out of that server.

        Wouldn't it be a great way to signal excessive load on a server? Except that then microsoft would embrace and extend the idea with ballMer lightning, which also throws chairs at you if it spots license irregularities.
      • The Boxen (Score:5, Funny)

        by kfg (145172) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @11:29AM (#17602550)
        I am just a Sun Blade and my story's seldom told
        I have squandered my existence on some packets full of numbers such are data files
        All porn and jest
        Still the NAT hears what it wants to hear
        and access denies the rest
        Oh yes, access denies the rest

        In the NOC there stands a boxen
        and a server by its trade
        and it carries the reminders
        of every luser guest that logged on
        and downloaded till it cried out
        in its full Slashdotted shame
        "My CPU is burning, but the hard drive still remains"
        Yes, the data still remains . . .

        Dee oh Ees *kissssssh*
        Dee oh, Dee oh, Dee oh Ees
        Dee oh Ees *kissssssh*
        Dee oh, Dee oh, Dee oh, Dee oh, Dee oh Ees

        KFG
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Arker (91948)
      It can bounce around, fly through the air, float serenely across the room... it has a very broad repertoire of movements. The behaviour in the video is within the range of reports, so you can't rule it out because of that. The visual appearance of the balls is consistent with the ball lightning I've seen personally, and reports vary widely so far as colour as well as behaviour.
    • by obender (546976) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @07:28AM (#17601440)
      Non Flash version on Google video is here [google.com]
    • by PrinceAshitaka (562972) * on Sunday January 14, 2007 @07:32AM (#17601464) Homepage
      IS the scientist in this video wearing flip flops with this ball lightning scurrying around the floor by hiw feet? Is it just me or is this not a good idea. I want to see the blooper reel of this video.
    • by rucs_hack (784150) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @07:36AM (#17601474)
      A friend of mine was swimming in a lake in the eighties and some ball lightening appeared. It bounced along the surface of the lake near him, scaring him and others on the lake beach somewhat as he raced to the shore.

      It dissipated shortly after he got out, and he went straight to the lakeside bar to get a drink, touched the proffered glass, and it exploded. Other than that and a healthy dose of 'holy fuck', he had no ill effects.
      • by Cousin Scuzzy (754180) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @12:43PM (#17603170)
        A friend of mine was swimming in a lake in the eighties and some ball lightening appeared.

        That's not ball lightening, that's just shrinkage. Happens to men when they're swimming all the time. Usually not when the water's in the eighties though.

        It dissipated shortly after he got out

        Yeah, that's typical too.
    • I seem to remember an article in Radio Electronics magazine from the 1980's where someone created ball lightning in not-so-lab conditions; IIRC, it was on an old train because there had been reports of ball lightning being produced due to some switch that controlled the generators. Anyone else geeky and old enough to remember this?
    • TFA says "... similar to ball lightning...". TFH (TF headline) gets it wrong and says this is ball lightning. Yet another case of a hyping headling. I'm getting pretty tired of these lame hypes which make claims in excess of what the people in the lab are. We crap on stupid printed media journalists, why should we tolerate the same from /.?

      Just because someone in a lab makes a ball of feathers that quacks does not mean that they have made a duck!

      • by gbulmash (688770) *
        Just because someone in a lab makes a ball of feathers that quacks does not mean that they have made a duck!


        If it passes the duck test [wikipedia.org], it would be pretty reasonable to call it a duck, even if it were a cygnet that merely resembled an ugly young duck.

        - Greg
      • by timeOday (582209)
        In what way is this not ball lighting? AFAIK, ball lightning exists only as a description and not a specific cause... until now.
    • Is ball lightning supposed to bounce around the ground like that? I thought it floated. 'Course, I could be mistaken.

      From what I recall Nikola Tesla [wikipedia.org] was able to get ball lightning to both float and bounce around. Then again he was able to do a lot of different "amazing" things, like getting people to think an earthquake was hitting New York.

      Falcon
    • I like it that the experimenters appear to be wearing sandals while their white-hot spicy balls fizzle around on the floor. Sacrifice for Science!
  • Fascinating (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Ceriel Nosforit (682174) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @06:38AM (#17601194)
    I find it fascinating that it displays almost no friction to the floor as it moves about. Plus, the gas jets tell of a very complex combination of structure and chemical process occurring.
    It will be interesting to read more research on the subject when it becomes available.
  • by Werrismys (764601) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @06:40AM (#17601206)
    These things stay on ground... when I was a kid I once saw a ball of lightning and it danced along a barbed wire fence. This is a start but not the whole truth...
  • by rindeee (530084) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @06:43AM (#17601214)
    ...that isn't it. The most accurate description I can give based on the one time I witnessed it is that it looked very similar to the luminescent jellyfish that you might see when boating at night (soft glow, bluish, semi-translucent). That 'look', and the fact that what I saw seemed to 'float' (the video shows something that is most definitely not weightless as it drops and bounces about)leaves me unimpressed. I don't know what causes ball lighting (I'm sure it's rather anticlimactic whatever it is), but this isn't it. Just my two cents.
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by noigmn (929935)
      You may not have witnessed ball lightning. Many species of extra terrestrial life have been said to look like jellyfish. An alien encounter seems far more likely by my reasoning.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by sucker_muts (776572)
      The most accurate description I can give based on the one time I witnessed it is that it looked very similar to the luminescent jellyfish that you might see when boating at night (soft glow, bluish, semi-translucent).

      Perhaps because these are tiny lab expirment ones, a real one created with an actual lightning might indeed look quite different. The substance where a real one comes from is normally not a pure silicon based thing.

      But I fear this is one of these things that are difficult to recreate accu
    • by Cyberax (705495) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @06:54AM (#17601282)
      Of COURSE, it isn't. Because they use energies far less than involved in a real lightning, but they may have found a plausible mechanism for ball lightning.

      As I can see in the video, their fireballs move along equipotential curves, i.e. along the lines with the equal electric field. But the electric charge of concrete floor is almost zero, so ball lightning doesn't float too high. In a real thunderstorm there may be potential differenced in ranges of thousand volts per meter.
    • I believe you have witnessed his Noodliness.
      http://www.venganza.org/ [venganza.org]
    • by kestasjk (933987) *
      Wouldn't it be a bit strange if there were two entirely separate ways to cause this bizarre phenomenon? I'm sure as they experiment more they'll be able to reproduce all the variations people see.

      Hopefully we'll soon see an interesting application of this phenomenon too! (Let's just hope the military don't put it to some nasty use)
    • There's a third option as well; maybe there are two different phenomena at work. On one had we have what these Brazilians have demonstrated, and on the other we have what you have seen.

      It could still be that with a different chemical composition the balls would behave in a different way, and lightening isn't known for being picky about where it hits. Limestone, granite or trees. - Doesn't really matter.

      Maybe analyzing the soil and comparing it to the nuances of the reports of ball lightening would yield som
    • by sunwukong (412560)
      Perhaps you weren't wearing flipflops like the people in the video -- yikes!
  • They should have made them bigger. Much bigger. Imagine one the size of a dog/dog-rabbit, bouncing around the countryside. Hail to the ball of vaporizing silicon!
  • I recommend not using nylon sheets, an hours worth of charge really hurts.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 14, 2007 @06:53AM (#17601274)
    A couple of years ago I tested the fireplace in our just build new house. It is a fireplace which has a glass door to prevent smoke from entering the living room. Between the door and the frame there is a gap of two millimeter wide. I had put in tropical wood, leftovers of a bridge build in our neighborhood. I had set the lever to the extreme and lots of air (oxygen) was flowing in. Suddenly there was an impressive explosion and about a dozen of these pearls flowed through the fireplace. Three of them moved towards the glass door and actually seemed to move through the glass door near the edge of it. The glass door remained intact. I wrote some reports about it and have send them to some scientists working in this field. One of the possible explanations was that the balls might have been fast rotating strings, capable of moving through the gap. It was a wonderful experience which I have not been able to recreate. It very much looks like these balls in the video
  • Why do we suppose that all ball lightnings are generated the same way? This is a pretty strong statement as far as I can tell, without the appropriate grounds to make it. However, this particular theory definitely has a reason to live in my eyes, since it would explain generation of lightning balls at large altitude [Caucasus mountains, where they pose a threat to mountain climbers; at least one group has perished to a ball lightning-like object with only one injured survivor remaining], since silicates [pa
  • Arc welding (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Pouic (1051024) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @06:54AM (#17601280)
    It very much looks like liquid metal balls bouncing on the floor, these are produced very often when using an electric arc welder.
    • From TFA: "To test this idea, a [Brazilian] team... took wafers of silicon just 350 micrometers thick, placed them between two electrodes and zapped them with currents of up to 140 amps. Then... they moved the electrodes slightly apart, creating an electrical arc that vaporised the silicon". Translation: using standard arc welding equipment with the current turned to max, the team zapped the crap out of some bits of silicon which were lying around and took a *very* amateur video, not even bothering to put o
    • It very much looks like liquid metal balls bouncing on the floor, these are produced very often when using an electric arc welder.

      That was my thought too - all the 'balls' dropped straight to the ground and skittled along it. Behavior perfectly consistent with sparks such as those produced by a welder - and not at all consistent with that of ball lightning which is almost always described as 'floating'.
    • You can get a very similar effect by placing a short U-shaped piece of solder into a 110 volt outlet and switching it on.

      We used to do that in electronics class in high school. We'd kill power at the breaker panel, and since all the workbenches had multiple A.C. outlets we'd put solder in all of them. When the instructor came in he'd notice the power was off and go flip the breaker. *POW* there'd be a room-filling flash of blue-white light and there would be a dozen or more hot white balls dancing across
  • Check out the dude's footwear! Flip flops/thongs/whatever you call 'em don't seem appropriate!
    • by Instine (963303)
      damn. My points just expired. I would have marked you up. I was going to post this. Off Topic my arse! The guy's wareing Flip Flops while super hot gasseous structures are bouncing around at toe hight. He's clearly insane. The madder the scientist the better, is my usual take :)

      on the side note of the science involved, I don't think these things would float if they had more anergy. They seem to drop at 10m/s/s ish, regardless of size (tho admittedly they don't vary that much).

      I heard one account of a b
      • In a lightning storm you have all sorts of crazy electrostatic fields, which could cause the strange motions and floating of ball lightning. Remember, these balls are lightweight.
  • Big deal (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by iamdrscience (541136)
    They've been selling lightning balls [youtube.com] at Radio Shack for years now.
  • ...Only different (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Genda (560240) <marietNO@SPAMgot.net> on Sunday January 14, 2007 @07:04AM (#17601326) Journal
    This isn't ball lightning, what's happening here is mostly oxidation...
    I remember as a kid, attaching some extra thin solder wire between a couple nails in a small piece of scrap wood attached to a power cord. Plug the cord into the outlet and the solder would explode in a shower of sparks. I'd do this on sheets of butcher paper, because the solder sparks would hit the paper, incandescent white, and bounce around just like the silicon in this demonstration (probably burning both the flux and some of the lead in the solder) leaving behind these intricate little trails all over the paper. At the end, you'd find these tiny little balls of solder (typically 0.4-0.8 mm.) Point is, you'd ionize a little metal, and get that metal (lead or silicon it doesn't matter) to oxidize, and there's clearly a ball of vaporized metal surrounding the burning bit at the middle, but this is not by any stretch anything like ball lightening.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by daveling (746446)
      I thought the same, ball lightning is supposed to fly, this looks much like sparks from a TIG or MIG welder, albeit a little more sophisticated, it also doesn't have the properties described of ball lightning, i.e. attracted to electrical sources (sometimes).

      When I was young my Mum saw ball lightning and described it, it flew across the backyard and zeroed in on our power board. The next morning I had a look and there were no scorch marks on the board, very odd.

      I always thought the best possibility f
  • this is NOT it... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Brane2 (608748) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @07:06AM (#17601340)
    Judging from published photos and descriptions of ball lightning phenomena and copy of the video on youtube, this is far from ball lighting.

    These things hover over the concrete floor and look like sizzling droplets that can spray around sometimes when welding. It is not unusual to see such hovering drops as they vaporize water in the floor beneath them and so create some kind of gas cushion- hovercraft effect.

    Genuine ball lightnings has been reported able to hover in the air, sometimes at considerable height and it was not always blindingly bright...

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by javaxjb (931766)
      I wouldn't be so quick to discount this as a major source of many instances of ball lightning. For starters, Silicon is the most common solid element on Earth, so there is plenty around. And I see no reason to think that Silicon would be the only element or molecule that could produce this effect. Also, the experimenters are also dealing with much less energy than a real lightning strike and much purer silicon than lightning would hit. Given higher energy (heat) and less silicon you might see something that
  • I want names (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lohphat (521572) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @07:18AM (#17601404)
    "Scientists have devised numerous possible explanations, including mini black holes left over from the Big Bang"

    I want their names -- show me a scientist who would publicly postulate this.
  • by Tumbleweed (3706) * on Sunday January 14, 2007 @07:24AM (#17601426)
    Magic Missile should've been invented first! It's gonna take forever for me to get enough experience to get this...
  • I guess it depends on how big your micrometer [wikipedia.org] is.
  • I'm pretty sure (Score:4, Informative)

    by Rogerborg (306625) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @07:32AM (#17601460) Homepage
    that no scientist has ever proposed singularities as the source of ball lightning.
  • I was surprised that artificial ball lightning is considered so elusive. I thought it could be done in a Microwave [airnet.com.au] oven [angelfire.com]. I'm sure I can remember some more serious experiments being reported on Slashdot too. Maybe someone can find them.
    • by Tony Hoyle (11698)
      I saw it on TV 20 years ago. It's really easy - if you simulate lightning (there are whole warehouses built that can do this) then occasinally you will get something exactly like the effect shown.
    • Re:Old hat? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by madaxe42 (690151) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @09:37AM (#17601928) Homepage
      Yep - easiest way to make ball lightning - light a wide based candle, without any metal in it (no tea-lights!), place it in the microwave, in the middle of the plate. Nuke. Plasma ball appears, candle goes out, and plasma ball remains. Turn off microwave, the plasma stays a few seconds, before descending back into the candle.
  • Lightning gun time!!!
  • Still not right (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mustafap (452510) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @07:41AM (#17601498) Homepage

    This is no explaination for the phenomenon. Soil? Lasting 8 seconds?

    I have a personal experience of ball lighting and it completely contradicts the results suggested.

    I was 10 years old ( 32 years ago ) living in an urban town in Crawley, UK. There was a heavy thunderstorm - which I should point out would be a minor storm relative to other countries. It was about 9pm at night.

    My brother and I had been in bed in our rooms when my mother came up to us and brought us downstairs. She saw visibly upset by something ( I still recall the event clearly now, for that reason ).

    Her explaination was that she had been reading when she saw a ball of light, about the size of a grapefruit, arise slowly from the telephone. It hovered at about chest height for a while and hen slow drift towards the closed kitchen door. It dissipated when it came into contact with the door.

    That description doesn't tie up with a bit of soil igniting and burning for a few seconds.

    I don't believe there is anything mystical about this phenomenon but I don't buy this work as being an explaination for it.
    • My friend's parents saw something similar to this happen during dinner at the family dinner table. Like you said, I recall being told it was about the size of a grapefruit and it floated about, hovering over the table in front of the two of them. I think it descended from overhead light and returned after several seconds, but I don't remember the details clearly.
    • The 8 seconds the balls in this experiment lasted is 8 seconds more than they have lasted in previous experiments (where the lifetime has been measured in milliseconds).
    • I've seen reports of ball lightning seen from airplanes, and some witnesses claim to have seen it move through solid objects. A theory of ball lightning either has to propose a different mechanism from the silicon hypothesis or else dismiss the reports as mistaken.
  • right... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by fester2001 (1051032) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @07:59AM (#17601558) Homepage
    the real question is why would you be waring thongs with burning balls running around your feet
  • It's a quantum space-time effect, you people just don't know it yet! Once you figure this out, the human race will finally be a spacefaring species. Go back to sleep, nothing to see here except ball lightning videos.
  • by InterGuru (50986) <jhdNO@SPAMinterguru.com> on Sunday January 14, 2007 @09:54AM (#17601996) Homepage
    Twenty years ago I visited Paul M. Koloc in his garage in College Park Md., watching his Plasmak machine produce ball lightning. He is still working on and improving it.


    Check it out at here [prometheus2.net] .

  • Ball lightning has nothing to do with soil, or the earth, in any way. There have been reports of ball lightning passing through Jumbo Jet airliners like an errant ghost and just about every report has heralded ball lightning's ability to hover or simply pass through objects. What the Brazilian labs have done seems to me to have created "Jumping Jacks."
  • by Quiet_Desperation (858215) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @01:26PM (#17603550)
    A ball lightning gun!
  • Flight EA539 (Score:3, Interesting)

    by evilviper (135110) on Sunday January 14, 2007 @04:29PM (#17605394) Journal
    Nothing new...

    There have ALWAYS been numerous theories, and numerous tests, which could explain a FEW of the properties of ball lightning, but never ALL of them.

    A gas ball sounds good, except for numerous accounts of ball lightning traveling THROUGH solid objects (comming out the other side) all without causing ANY damage to the stationary object at all. How does burning silicon gas do that?

    How does this burning gas ball slowly float inches away from people, and not cause them to feel the intense heat from the object?

    And how does silicon gas (from a ground lightning strike) suddenly appear floating down the isle of a commercial aircraft in-flight?


    March 19, 1963
    Eastern Airlines Flight EA539
    From New York to Washington

    Five minutes past midnight, the plane encountered a storm. There's a loud bang and a bright flash. Seconds later a glowing ball emerges from the pilots cabin. The blue light ball hovers above the isle and floats slowly towards the rear of the plane. It reaches the back of the plane and vanishes. Remarkably, the plane continues unharmed.
    (National Geographic: Naked Science)

  • "Scientists have devised numerous possible explanations, including mini black holes left over from the Big Bang, but have had little success in producing working examples." Really? Hmm...

    "Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics and the Humboldt University, both in Berlin, have used underwater electrical discharges to generate luminous plasma clouds resembling ball lightning that last for nearly half a second and are up to 20 centimetres across."

    Physicists create great balls of fire [newscientist.com] 07 Jun

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