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ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: Wed Aug 07 13:23:00 EDT 2013

New insights into the one-in-a-million lightning called ‘ball lightning’

"Further Insight into the Nature of Ball-Lightning-Like Atmospheric Pressure Plasmoids"
The Journal of Physical Chemistry A

One of the rare scientific reports on the rarest form of lightning — ball lightning — describes better ways of producing this mysterious phenomenon under the modern laboratory conditions needed to explain it. The new study on a phenomenon that puzzled and perplexed the likes of Aristotle 2,300 years ago and Nikola Tesla a century ago appears in ACS’ The Journal of Physical Chemistry A.

C. Michael Lindsay and colleagues explain that ball lightning consists of a floating, glowing ball that may drift eerily through the sky and then explode violently, sometimes injuring people and damaging buildings. The balls can range in size from a garden pea to globes several feet in diameter and glow for up to 10 seconds. Since it occurs only once in every million lightning bolts, natural ball lightning cannot be studied with scientific instruments. Like Tesla in 1900, Lindsay and colleagues did their research by producing artificial ball lightning in the laboratory.

They describe experiments that led to more effective ways of making ball lightning, essential for further insights into the phenomenon, and techniques that made the fireball last longer so that observations could continue. They developed a special video technique that reveals more information than ever before about the structure of the lightning balls and how they move. 

The authors acknowledge funding from the Small Grant Program of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Ball lightning, depicted in this 1886 drawing by G. Hartwig, and its causes are getting less mysterious thanks to new research.
Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration