Lightning-Plane Strikes Studied In Artificial Lightning Lab (VIDEO)

03/16/2012 01:47 pm ET

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In ancient times, people thought the gods made lightning. Nowadays, scientists in Wales make lightning in a lab--and it's 10 times more powerful than the real thing. In the video above, you can see scientists at Cardiff University's Morgan-Botti Lightning Laboratory as they zap various objects and record the resulting explosions.

It sure sounds like fun, but project manager Philip Leichauer and his team have a good reason for their experiments. They're developing 'skins' for airplanes--thin coverings that can withstand lightning strikes when a plane is up in the clouds.

“If you look at lightning itself, it is a lot of charge gathering in the base of a cloud, and suddenly being discharged to the ground by the strike," Dr. Manu Haddad, of the university's engineering school, told Wales Online. "We can mirror this using capacitors--it can make a large charge, in a similar way, and discharge them very quickly."

Will the new technology save lives? Quite possibly. Lightning strikes civilian aircraft an average of once a year, NBC reporter Michelle Kosinski says in the video. The strikes are extremely dangerous for small planes, though the last time lightning caused the crash of a large plane was in the 1960s.

The scientists are pleased with their results so far. After the home-made lightning causes some objects to blow up spectacularly, it comes as a surprise when Leichauer zaps one of the experimental panels—there's hardly any damage.

Kosinski notes that the blast "just basically scorches the surface a tiny tiny bit." Leichauer replies, "Yep, and if you look at the other side, you'll see that there's not really even a dent."


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