Since I was a small boy, I have always been fascinated by electricity, and more generally, manifestations of high voltage and high energy, like lightning. Seeing the high voltage exhibition at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany was certainly a high point of my youth (and again, when I visited it as an adult). Several closer encounters with the real thing have only encouraged my interest. To that end, I have been industriously working on creating artificial lightning in many forms.
To create an artificial version, you need to know a little about the real thing (which, sadly, we don't see much of in Southern California). However, there are some pretty good books out there, and I have prepared a short summary of lightning characteristics. You can link to it from here.
High voltage effects, in general, are pretty neat, but most of the time, they are very low energy. That is, it may be a few megavolts, producing a long spark, but the current might only be a milliamp or so, so the arcs are very thin. A good example of this sort of effect is the Tesla Coil (beloved of old science fiction movie makers). Lightning, on the other hand, has substantial currents (say 10,000 amps) producing a spark channel a centimeter or so in diameter.
Electric utilities have systems to generate voltages and currents of this magnitude for testing. Lightning simulators generally store energy in capacitors slowly and then discharging them rapidly to produce the high energy discharge typical of lightning. The usual system for this is called a Marx Generator, about which I have more detail in my high voltage handbook. I have done a fair amount of work developing a system to produce very realistic Artificial lightning on stage in a safe and effective manner (as opposed to simply unleashing multi-megavolt arcs at will).
Copyright 1998, Jim Lux / 9 April 1998 / lightnin.htm /Back to home page / Mail to Jim