Lightning Researchers Participate in $9.8 Million Defense Agency Grant

MELBOURNE, FLA.—Just in time for Florida’s summer lightning season, a $9.8 million grant will greatly expand research operations at the University of Florida (UF) and Florida Institute of Technology International Center for Lightning Research and Testing. Florida Tech will receive more than $1.9 million of the grant for its specific studies at the center.

The four-year grant from the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, will let researchers probe the basic science of lightning using the center’s unique rocket-triggered lightning capabilities, said Martin Uman, principal investigator and a UF distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Florida Tech will take the lead on the x-ray and gamma-ray observations of thunderclouds and lightning. Conducting the research are Professors Joseph Dwyer and Hamid Rassoul and Assistant Professor Ningyu Liu.

The grant, which began in June, will fund cutting-edge new instrumentation and research, including the world’s first x-ray camera for imaging lightning. The camera will not only take the first x-ray images of lightning, it will also take high-speed movies of lightning using the x-rays that lightning emits. Operating at 10 million frames per second, if successful, the camera will give researchers a detailed view into the inner workings of lightning.

Researchers at the lightning center, based at the Camp Blanding Army National Guard Base near Starke, fire wire-trailing rockets into storm clouds to trigger and study strikes. Investigations have spanned how to better protect electrical power lines, homes and airplanes to lightning’s root causes and characteristics. In recent years, a team from Florida Tech and UF was the first to document x-rays produced by triggered lightning. And late last year, the team published research on the possible radiation threat posed by lightning-produced x-rays to airline passengers and crews flying near storms.

Dwyer said the DARPA grant is aimed at exploring how lightning starts in the cloud, how it moves through the air, and how it connects to the ground.

“People are used to lightning and so sometimes forget how destructive it is. We have got these 50,000°F bolts striking at random all around us, carrying enough current to blow apart a tree. Yet, how lightning does what it does largely remains a mystery. We hope when we figure out how lightning works we will also learn how to make people safer,” he said.

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