Lightning: Nature's Power Player

Blog Post Thursday 31 July 2014

Lightning: Nature's Power Player

As nature’s femme fatale, lightning knows how to light up the sky with its epic wow factor, but it also can strike us mere mortals down in the blink of an eye.

Lightning can strike as quick as 1-2 milliseconds with the force of millions of volts of electricity, at an average temperature of 20,000 degrees Celsius. That’s five times hotter than the sun!

Lightning strikes the Eiffel Tower

But don’t go locking yourself in an earthed rubber chamber just yet. While there are millions of lightning strikes every year - 100 lightning strikes occurring even this very second – there are only ,on average, 100 lightning related deaths per year, worldwide.

So, without jinxing you guys, you would have to be pretty unlucky to be struck down and killed by one of these suckers.

Up your odds of survival

When I think about lightning safety, I just get lost in a jumble of mismatched facts. Should I stay away from trees? Or stay away from open fields?  Should I ditch my umbrella, or will getting wet increase my chance of electrocution?

And no wonder. There is a fair bit of conflicting information out there. But what the pros do seem to agree on is that the number one way to stay lightning safe is to stay indoors, away from lightning conductors like land lines, computers, and even the bath and shower.

But if you do find yourself caught out and about in an electrical storm, an umbrella should only be used if made of plastic. Otherwise go without. A metal umbrella is basically just a lightning rod with a cute pattern. And while getting soaked to the bone is uncomfortable, the worse cause scenario is a case of the common cold. 

On the tree question, being underneath a tree is actually one of the top causes of lightning casualties. The tree itself attracts lightning, so by huddling under it you have the chance of being either struck directly by lightning or maybe a falling branch instead.

Lightning in Australia

While storms are a typical hallmark of long cold winter months, lightning plays a significant and dangerous role in the Australian summer.

With hot weather drying out the landscape, lightning strikes are key cause of many of our brutal bushfires. Occurring with storms that carry little or no rain, ‘dry lightning’ strikes amidst our sweltering heatwaves when the landscape is at its most brittle.

Dry lightening also treated itself to an unwelcome cameo at last January’s Australian Open. Play was suspended as lightning strikes came uncomfortably close to the world’s top tennis players.

Harness race

Okay, so if lightning is hotter than the sun and has the power to blow the bush to smithereens and scare international athletes from their sports, why aren’t we harnessing this incredible energy?

Did you know that one single lightning strike carries five billion joules of energy? That could power your entire home for one whole month.

Scientists have actually been trying to harvest this incredible energy source since the late 1980s. The issue? While lightning actually does often strike twice (the Empire State Building is hit nearly 100 times a year), it only strikes in the same place every so often. It is also completely inconsistent in how it strikes.

This means that the key issues in harvesting lightning are more to do with collecting lightning bolts of radically different energy frequencies, and then converting that energy into a stable low-voltage than can be conveniently stored. Not an easy feat.

And while no one has been able to crack the riddle for large-scale energy use, researchers from the University of Southampton have teamed up with phone company Nokia to explore how we might harness lightning for personal use.

By employing simulated lightning strikes of 200,000 volts, a controlling transformer, and technology within the phone designed to smooth out the lightning’s erratic energy, the team was able to charge a Nokia Lumia 925.

And while it doesn’t mean that you should throw your dead phone out into a storm, the team does see it as a massive step toward wirelessly charging mobile phones.

Pretty rad, huh?