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World's largest Tesla coils being built to unlock the secrets of natural lightning

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November 30, 2011

The Lightning Foundry's 1:12 scale prototype in action

The Lightning Foundry's 1:12 scale prototype in action

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Calling all Tesla fans! Electrical engineer Greg Leyh and his team at the Lightning on Demand organization (LOD) in California are raising the funds necessary to build the world's largest twin Tesla coils (ten stories high, about 120 ft/37 m) that will be capable of generating electric arcs more than 200 feet (60 m) long. Dubbed the "Lightning Foundry," the project currently consists of a working 1:12 scale prototype. When complete, a towering pair of coils will fill a football field-sized area with massive electric bolts that researchers hope will reveal some of the mysteries of this beautiful but deadly force.

Like the "juice" that flows through our home wiring, lightning is electricity, but it behaves very differently than the relatively low voltages we use to power our lives. When natural lightning is initiated, it inexplicably slices through the air as much as ten times more easily than smaller-scale electric arcs. Since previous research indicates that lab-generated electric arcs longer than 200 feet (60 m) begin to behave more like real lightning, Leyh and his team aim to generate even longer arcs in an effort to understand the physics behind this size-related property shift.

For those unfamiliar with the genius behind the technology Leyh's team is using, Nikola Tesla was a brilliant Serbian inventor who first came to America in 1884 and pioneered the use of alternating current (AC) in power distribution. Along with electricity and wireless power transmission, he was also fascinated with a phenomenon called resonance, the combination of carefully-timed small forces to form massive amounts of energy. His first resonant transformer circuit or Tesla coil (actually comprised of two coils, one surrounded by the other), was designed and built around 1891.

Nikola Tesla

Tesla discovered that when AC built up in the primary coil of his device, it created a magnetic field capable of inducing current in the secondary coil. He then learned that he could make this induction happen more efficiently if the current flowing through both coils matched in their oscillation frequency. By converting low voltage and high current in the primary coil into high voltage and low current in the secondary coil, the whole unit acts like a transformer. The bigger the secondary coil, the greater the resultant voltage, which, when high enough, can shatter the surrounding air into charged ions that permit current flow. At that point, the accumulated energy is discharged in the form of a high-energy arc, standard issue in the labs of all mad scientists.

While awaiting completion funds for the behemoth version of the Lightning Foundry, Leyh's team is gleaning useful information from its functional scale prototype. Along with the luxury of being able to test out new design ideas, the group reports numerous instances of unexpected behavior from the device, including the wireless transmission of power over long distances, a key goal of Tesla's throughout his checkered career. Check out the LOD site if you'd like to play a role in this electrifying pursuit!

About the Author
Randolph Jonsson A native San Franciscan, Randolph attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland before finding his way to the film business. Eventually, he landed a job at George Lucas' Industrial Light + Magic, where he worked on many top-grossing films in both the camera and computer graphics departments. A proud member of MENSA, he's passionate about technology, optimal health, photography, marine biology, writing, world travel and the occasional, well-crafted gin and tonic!   All articles by Randolph Jonsson
5 Comments

Awesome - now - if every footy field had one of these, and they ran them all for a few hours each night, we've be able to repair all the damage we've done via CFCs to our ozone layer too :-)

christopher
30th November, 2011 @ 04:31 pm PST

So they've finally decided to publicly unveil the great works of the man!

Michael Simpson
1st December, 2011 @ 04:06 am PST

re; christopher

The only thing wrong with CFCs is that their patents ran out.

Slowburn
1st December, 2011 @ 05:43 pm PST

I'm sure Tesla would have loved this idea... he built a similarly large coil in Colorado that created electric energy that transmitted for miles. Though he never really did reach his goal of a global electrical transmission network, he set the stage for the technology we use today. Maybe these new large scale coils will help to work out the mystery of electricity still untold...

Samuel Arbizo
1st December, 2011 @ 11:18 pm PST

After reading all I could on Tesla a decade ago, including 3 bios, I concluded he was the greatest mind of the 20th century. If he had revealed his secret for transmitting wireless electricity we would not need batteries for the EVs.

voluntaryist
2nd December, 2011 @ 01:54 pm PST
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