Recreating Volcanic Lightning

A volcanic eruption with purple lightning

Some natural phenomena, like volcanic eruptions or tornado formation, don’t lend themselves to fieldwork — at least not at the height of the action. The danger, unpredictability, and destructiveness of these environments is more than our equipment can survive. And so researchers find clever ways to recreate these phenomena in controllable ways. The latest example comes from a lab in Germany, where researchers are recreating volcanic lightning.

To do so, they heat and pressurize actual volcanic ash in an argon environment and let the mixture decompress into a jet, like a miniature eruption. The lightning that accompanies the jet is thought to depend on friction between ash particles, which build up electric charges when rubbed, just like a balloon rubbed against one’s hair. When the charges get large enough, lightning discharges the build-up.

Small-scale experiments like this one allow researchers to vary the temperature and water content of the ash and observe how this changes the lightning. Drier ash generates more lightning, but it’s hard to distinguish whether this is inherent to the ash or the result of the denser jets that form without the added eruptive force of steam. (Image credit: eruption – M. Szeglat, lab lightning – Sönke Stern/Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München/Gizmodo; research credit: S. Stern et al.; via Gizmodo)

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