Sometimes, all it takes to push the boundaries of science is a wacky idea and a machine to prove it. Greg Leyh, founder of Lightning On Demand (LOD), may do just that, with plans to build two, ten-story-tall Tesla coils that can shoot hundreds of feet of lightning.
“Historically, new scientific machines produce unexpected discoveries,” said Leyh in an e-mail interview. “Many new discoveries are viewed as problems, where others provide fascinating new insights.”
Leyh hopes the Lightning Foundry project will shine new light on the initiation process of natural lightning, which he explains on the LOD website. The problem with studying lightning, it states, is that as lightning forms, it uses tricks science does not yet understand to break through the air up to ten times easier than what can be done with small-scale electric arcs.
But theories, and an experimental accident of the Siberian Institute for Power Engineering, found “laboratory-scale electric arcs start to gain lightning-like abilities once they grow past about 200ft in length,” according to the website.
Thus, the team at LOD aims to build two Tesla coils at the scale needed to generate electric arcs large enough to mimic natural lightning.
These will be the largest Tesla coils ever built, and will run at full output—around 4 million watts—to fill a football field with continuous bolts of lightning. They then plan to increase the voltage to 14 million volts and change the distance between the towers “to explore this mysterious region where normal electric arcs transform into lightning,” according to the project website.
“Understanding how lightning forms [and grows] is the first step towards being able to control where lightning strikes or being able to suppress it completely in certain areas,” Leyh said.
In 2008 they built a 1:12 scale model of the Lightning Foundry project, and as the project website states, “The prototype twin coils often surprise us with wonderfully unexpected behavior, including a strong tendency to couple power wirelessly over large distances.”
While testing the prototype coils, “we accidentally discovered that they can transmit wireless power very effectively… enough to start a fire,” Leyh said. They published a paper on the discovery at the 2008 North American Power Symposium.
But they found the wireless power could do other things, and the LOD team used it to create the world’s first “wirelessly powered” vehicle using the electric field from the coils. The vehicle, which they called the “Tesla Roadster” is a chair on wheels with a large pole that can pull power from the field of the Tesla coils.
Aside from fire safety, the team will be taking other Tesla coil-related issues into consideration. Tesla coils have an uncanny ability to short out modern electronics—anything from erasing voice mails to blowing out computer screens. To guard against this, the LOD teams usually places “nearby electronics in shielded enclosures,” or they run the coils “far, far away,” Leyh said.
Look at me still talking when there’s science to do.
(Images courtesy of Lightning On Demand)