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Ball Lightning From a Water Beaker

Ball Lightning From a Water Beaker

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The very existence of these balls of light is the subject of controversy. People who have seen them say they can move
along power lines and even go through windowpanes.
Until recently, there was no way to get closer to ball lightning
by scientifi c means. But now, GERD FUSSMANN from the MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR PLASMA PHYSICS and BERLIN’S HUMBOLDT UNIVERSITY has managed to create blazing balls of plasma in his lab – and they may just help explain the phenomenon.
The very existence of these balls of light is the subject of controversy. People who have seen them say they can move
along power lines and even go through windowpanes.
Until recently, there was no way to get closer to ball lightning
by scientifi c means. But now, GERD FUSSMANN from the MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR PLASMA PHYSICS and BERLIN’S HUMBOLDT UNIVERSITY has managed to create blazing balls of plasma in his lab – and they may just help explain the phenomenon.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: THE NIKOLA TESLA INSTITUTE on Aug 09, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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12/15/2013

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M
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P
LANCK
R
ESEARCH
2/2008 2/2008 M
AX
P
LANCK
R
ESEARCH
 
35
B
all lightning is a curious thing.Many people claim to haveseen it, including some very crediblewitnesses, such as the famous physi-cists Benjamin Franklin, Nikola Tes-la, Niels Bohr and Pyotr Kapitza.There’s even a Russian society thatkeeps a list detailing around 5,000sightings of the phenomenon. How-ever, a closer look at the evidenceoften causes confidence to dwindlefairly rapidly. “At the institute whereBohr used to work, we couldn’t getany confirmation that he had seenball lightning,” says Gerd Fußmann,a scientist at the Max Planck Insti-tute for Plasma Physics (IPP) andBerlin’s Humboldt University. Never-theless, there are so many reportsfrom credible people that the IPP re-searcher is convinced of the exis-tence of the balls of light. “They’re just very rare,” he says.Photos of ball lightning are fewand far between, and those that doexist are not very convincing. Tak-ing all of the descriptions of balllightning together, the following pic-ture emerges: ball lightning almostalways happens during storms, has adiameter of a few dozen centimetersand glows in various colors, predom-inantly described as reddish. In mostcases, they last between two andeight seconds. The phenomenonsometimes ends with a loud bang.The list of around a hundred theoriesand hypotheses incorporates all sortsof weird and wonderful ideas, in-cluding the appearance of antimatter and miniature black holes.Until four years ago, Gerd Fuß-mann wasn’t particularly interestedin ball lightning. Back then, he washead of the plasma physics researchgroup run by the IPP and HumboldtUniversity, studying the flow behav-ior of the plasmas involved in fusionreactors, like the Stellarator in Greif-swald and the ITER that was under construction. He was Director of theIPP’s Berlin branch until 2004, andwas also a professor of experimentalplasma physics at the university “onthe side,” as he notes with irony.
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IGHT
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UBBLES
 
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ATER
B
ATH
But then, in 2003, he attended aseminar where he heard a speech by a Russian scientist who told of as-tonishing experiments at the Insti-tute for Nuclear Physics in St. Pe-tersburg. The researchers there weretrying to develop a method of disin-fecting water with high-voltage dis-charge. In the process, they hadstumbled upon spherical light emis-sions rising out of the water. “Itseemed very interesting, but I didn’tbelieve it,” recalls Fußmann. Therewere a few photos, but no measure-ments.However, now he was struck withball lightning fever. He was keen tolook into the phenomenon and setup his own experiment in Berlin withhis colleague Burkhardt Jüttner. It isactually quite simple: a container measuring about 25 centimeters indiameter is filled with regular tapwater, and a ring-shaped electrode isattached to the base. The secondelectrode, a copper wire, is placedinside a one-centimeter-wide ceram-ic tube. The space between the tubeand the wire is almost completely filled with an insulator, with only the end of the copper wire uncov-ered. The scientists bring the wireand the ceramic tube from the bot-tom of the container up to the wa-
Ball Lightning
 from a Water Beaker 
The very existence of these balls of light is the subject of controversy.People who have seenthem say they can move along power lines and even go through window-panes. Until recently,there was no way to get closer to ball lightning by scientific means. But now,
G
ERD
F
USSMANN
 from the 
M
AX
P
LANCK
 I
NSTITUTE
 
FOR
P
LASMA
 P
HYSICS
and 
B
ERLIN
S
 H
UMBOLDT
U
NIVERSITY
 has managed to create blazing balls of plasma in his lab – and they may just help explainthe phenomenon.
ter’s surface such that they stick outof the water slightly – just enough toposition a droplet of water aroundthe uncovered piece of copper wire. A condenser bench then generates5,000 volts, which is dischargedabruptly above the two electrodes. At that moment, the water dropleton the uppermost electrode vaporizesand becomes a ball of light, measur-ing about 20 centimeters in diameter,that rises half a meter into the air.It’s no more than half a second be-fore the ball of light disappears.“Even though it’s very brief, you canclearly see the ball of plasma,” saysFußmann.During the first few experiments,Fußmann and his colleagues placedpieces of paper in the path of the ris-ing balls. As the paper did not burnon contact, the scientists suspectedthat the balls of light were relatively cool. This turned out to be wrong. Inthe past two years, the two profes-sors and two degree candidates havebeen getting down to the bones of the phenomenon using all the rules
It’s not magic, but electrical discharge that GerdFußmann (left) and Burkhardt Jüttner use to createa blazing ball of plasma from a droplet of water.
PLASMA
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of physics – and have discovered allsorts of amazing things.High-speed cameras show a spi-dery, glowing net spreading over thesurface of the water around the up-permost electrode shortly after the voltage discharge within a fewthousandths of a second. This iscaused by the high voltage betweenthe lower electrode and the water’ssurface, which collects electric chargecarriers. It also creates a raised fieldbetween the surface and the upper electrode, which attracts the chargecarriers from all sides. This currentheats the water droplet on the upper-most electrode to such a high tem-perature that it vaporizes and par-tially transforms into a plasma – thatis, an ionized gas.
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HIN
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IFFERENT
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ETALS
The diameter of the ball of light ris-ing at about 1 meter per secondgrows from about 8 to 20 centime-ters. Then the ball morphs into atire-shaped form and disappears. Theplasma bubble contains just one- tothree-tenths of a gram of gas.Experiments with thermoelements yielded the first temperature find-ings. The thermoelements in this caseare two extremely thin wires madeof different metals, welded together at both ends. When a difference intemperature occurs between the twoends, a current flows that can easily be measured. The strength of thecurrent provides a measurement of the temperature at the end of thethermoelement in contact with theobject. In these experiments, thephysicists held the thermoelement inthe balls of plasma. They recordedtemperatures of around 1,300 de-grees Celsius – and then the wiremelted. Only non-contact measure-ments could help them now.The method of choice in such cas-es is always spectroscopy. Degreecandidates Alex Versteegh fromEindhoven Technical University andStefan Noack from Leipzig Universi-ty undertook the experiments. Thetwo had heard about Fußmann’s ex-periments and were eager to get in- volved in the research. They had toanalyze the light in the plasma ballswith a spectrograph at short inter- vals. In their tests, the researchersestablished the characteristic emis-sion lines of calcium hydroxide andother molecules, as well as those of atoms and ions. From these, thephysicists deduced that the initialtemperature in the balls was on theorder of 5,000 degrees, and that itfell by about half within the firsttenth of a second. That’s pretty hotplasma, containing electrons andpositive ions from, for instance, so-dium, calcium and copper. While thefirst two are present in tap water inthe form of salts, the copper comesfrom the electrode.
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Many chemical reactions, however,also take place in the plasma ball.The scientists’ latest discoveriesshow that it is these that are respon-sible for most of the glow. At thesehigh temperatures, the water givesrise to hydroxide radicals, which inturn react with calcium to form cal-cium hydroxide. This reaction alsooccurs in flames and causes a lightemission known as chemolumines-cence. Although Gerd Fußmann and histeam have largely solved the riddle
Tension-filled: This condenser bench generates 5,000 volts. Gerd Fußmannattaches the electrodes that will vaporize and ionize a water droplet.
of the glowing plasma, one big is-sue remains unresolved: the sodiumand calcium atoms also emit lightin characteristic colors: sodiumglows yellow; calcium, reddish-or-ange. But they can do this only when continuously bombarded by hot and fast electrons. By rights, theelectrons should quickly cool downin a plasma, and thus the light fromthe plasma ball should quickly ex-tinguish, too. More quickly than theBerlin scientists have been seeing,at any rate. That means that theelectrons must continue being heat-ed for as long as the ball is aglow.The researchers suspect that the en-ergy needed to do this is stored inthe molecules and released to theelectrons in an as yet unknownmanner – a baffling procedure, andone that the scientists are still look-ing into.
S
ALTS
B
RING
 C
OLOR
 
INTO
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LAY
The yellow of the sodium and thereddish-orange of the calcium arenot the only colors with which theplasma balls can glow. They can takeon other colors, depending on whichsalts the researchers dissolve in thewater. Copper salts, for instance,make them glow a shade of green.Salts also enhance the brightness of the balls. This increases the electricalconductivity of the water, resultingin more electric energy being con- verted into light. A total of someeight kilojoules of energy flow fromthe high voltage into the discharge,with about three kilojoules going di-rectly into the water droplet. The va-porization of the liquid and the heat-ing of the water vapor consumearound half of this. Approximately 30 percent of the remaining 50 per-cent goes into dissociating the mole-cules and ionizing the atoms, and
Ball lightning under observation: The Berlin-based scientists analyzetheir measurements and the images from a high-speed camera.It’s clever design that creates a ball of plasma from a high-voltagedischarge between two electrodes. The lower electrode forms a ring. Thecentral electrode is surrounded by an insulator and a ceramic tube andprotrudes a few millimeters out of the water, carrying a droplet of water.
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LASMA
B
ALLS
 
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AB
There have been many other attempts to explain ball lightning. Two physicists at theUniversidade Federal de Pernambuco in Brazil vaporized silicon in a low-voltage arcdischarge. The result was glowing balls of plasma the size of tennis balls that rolledover tables and across the floor. They last up to eight seconds, but are unable to floatin the air.Building on Pyotr Kapitza’s theory, Japanese scientists created, in (standing) microwaves,plasma balls that were even able to travel through glass. Here, however, these glowingballs are essentially being constantly created anew in the microwaves’ power cavities.Since microwaves can penetrate glass, the plasma balls appeared able to do this as well.In reality, they disintegrated in front of the glass and were recreated behind it. But theydefinitely do not have anything to do with ball lightning, because microwave fields of this kind and intensity do not occur in nature.
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Glass vesselWaterWater surface
Enlargement of central electrodeCentral electrode
Ring electrodeInsulatorCopper wireCeramictubeDroplet of water

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