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.
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.
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.
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.
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