Faculty Members Receive NSF Grant to Study Lightning

MELBOURNE, FLA.—Florida Institute of Technology Professors Ningyu Liu, Joseph Dwyer and Hamid Rassoul of the Department of Physics and Space Sciences, received a National Science Foundation grant of $566,732 over four years for their project, “Investigating Lightning Initiation and Propagation with an Advanced Computer Model and Code.” They will investigate how lightning originates inside thunderclouds and propagates through many kilometers of air to reach ground.

“It is amazing that, after many years of dedicated research, how lightning is initiated in thunderclouds still remains one of the biggest mysteries in atmospheric sciences. A major obstacle hindering the scientists from answering this question is a lack of advanced computer models,” said Liu.

At present, physics-based models can only reproduce the very first discharge before the lighting channel, called the precursor. In reality, many such precursors must occur before the first lightning channel is born. These discharges may occur sequentially or simultaneously, and may branch and collide with each other in complicated ways. The difficulty is also compounded because a variety of physical and chemical processes must be considered as the temperature of air increases during the transition of the precursor discharges to the lightning channel. This makes lightning modeling a very challenging task.

The Florida Tech lightning researchers will take on the difficulty of developing an efficient, fully three-dimensional and physics-based lightning model. Their goal is to build the most comprehensive lightning model in the world and hope that their work will one day reveal the mystery of lightning initiation and propagation.

The project will support a postdoctoral researcher and a few student researchers.

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