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WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE?
Magpie is a former journalist, attempted historian [No, you can't ask how her thesis is going], and full-time corvid of the lesbian persuasion. She keeps herself in birdseed by writing those bad computer manuals that you toss out without bothering to read them. She also blogs too much when she's not on deadline, both here and at Pacific Views.

Magpie roosts in Portland, Oregon, where she annoys her housemates (as well as her cats Medea, Whiskers, and Jane Doe) by attempting to play Irish music on the fiddle and concertina.

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Thursday, June 8, 2006

Great balls of fire!

Scientists create ball lightning in the lab. (Or something a lot like it, anyway.)

German scientists say they've created glowing plasma clouds that resemble what ball lightning is supposed to look like. These clouds are up to 20 cm/7.8 inches across and last for almost half a second.


Ball lightning in the lab

Plasma ball created by German researchers.
[Image: Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics]


Ball lightning has puzzled scientists for centuries. Though little reliable data exist, there have been many anecdotal sightings, with people as diverse and famous as Charlemagne, Henry II and the physicist Niels Bohr all claiming to have seen it....

Most accounts describe a hovering, glowing, ball-like object up to 40 centimetres across, ranging in colour from red to yellow to blue and lasting for several seconds or in rare cases even minutes. Many scientists believe ball lightning is a ball of plasma formed when lightning strikes the ground, but the exact mechanism is unclear despite the many theories proposed.

Earlier in 2006, Israeli scientists created plasma balls by using microwaves to vaporise various materials, but Gerd Fussmann and his colleagues [at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics and the Humboldt University] used a different approach that they believe comes closer to the natural phenomenon. "It is likely that lightning flashes and water interact to produce ball lightning," says Fussmann. "We therefore use a short, high-voltage discharge of 5000 volts to vaporise some of the water in a glass tank and create the plasma ball."

The tank contains two electrodes, one of which is insulated from the surrounding water by a clay tube. The high voltage causes enormous currents of up to 60 amps — over 200 times those needed to cause death — to flow through the water for a fraction of a second. These enter the clay tube, causing the water there to evaporate and a luminous plasma ball — consisting of ionised water molecules — to rise from the surface.

"The balls survive up to 0.3 seconds after the current is switched off — far longer than normal plasmas, which decay away far more quickly," says Fussmann. For example, the plasmas used in laboratories and nuclear fusion plants decay within milliseconds of the power being switched off.

Despite the bright glow, the balls also appear to be rather cold, much like neon lights. A sheet of paper placed above them is lifted but does not catch fire.

I saw ball lightning once, during an electrical storm in California. It was more white-orange than what the Max Planck researchers have come up with, but otherwise looks rather similar. Let me tell you, it was very strange watching a glowing ball drift down the other side of the street for several seconds before disappearing.

Wikipedia has more on ball lightning here.

Via New Scientist.

| | Posted by Magpie at 6:07 AM | Get permalink




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