Lightning research sparks $420,000 grant

October 26, 2006

MELBOURNE, FLA.--Although it's 250 years since Ben Franklin's kite experiment, lightning still holds great mystery. Out to discover lightning's secrets is Florida Tech Professor of Physics and Space Sciences Joseph Dwyer. He just earned a $420,000 National Science Foundation grant to continue and expand his research.

"Scientists still struggle to understand the most basic facts about how it works," said Dwyer, who has brought the study of lightning research into the laboratory. He and his team made the discovery last year that laboratory-generated sparks make x-rays, too.

"X-rays let us see lightning in a brand new light. They let us study these violent discharges in ways that were not possible just a couple of years ago," Dwyer said.

Dwyer's co-investigators are Florida Tech Professor Hamid Rassoul of the same department and Professor Martin Uman of the University of Florida. The researchers will conduct theoretical, observational and experimental studies at both universities and at the International Center for Lightning Research and Testing at Camp Blanding, Fla.

What Dwyer is studying in the lab is the poorly understood phenomenon of runaway breakdown, which is shown to be associated with lightning. To date, the only mechanism that can account for the creation of the high-energy electrons that make x-rays is the runaway breakdown of air. In this phenomenon, the electric force experienced by electrons exceeds the effective frictional force due to collisions with air molecules, allowing the electrons to "run away" and gain very large energies.
Dwyer's previous breakthrough findings have earned extensive media exposure, including a PBS NOVA ScienceNow program and features on Discovery and National Geographic Channel TV programs.

Florida Institute of Technology

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