Slideshow: In Frankenstein's Laboratory

How One Company Generates Lightning to Test Avionics

1 min read

At the cavernous lab of Lightning Technologies, in Pittsfield, Mass., you first hear a horn’s warning blast, then a huge kapow. That’s the sound that electrons make when 2.4 million volts send them burning a zigzag path through the air. The bolt proceeds from the hanging double corona ring to a model supplied by one of the lab’s clients, in this case an airline that needs to test how lightning affects its planes’ ever more pervasive electronic control systems. (If you’re a frequent flier, you’ve surely been zinged by Zeus several times already.)

The blue tower consists of a stack of capacitors separated by spark gaps. It takes five or 10 minutes to charge all the capacitors, but when they’re ready, a single spark jumping a single gap is all it takes to start the avalanche of electrons.

Click for a larger version of the big picture

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions