Making Art Out Of 2.2 MegaVolt Lightning

The interior of an 18″ square x 1″ piece of Plexiglas was charged to 2.2 million volts (MV) using a 5 MV particle accelerator. A layer of excess electrons become trapped deep inside. When discharged, the excess charge escaped with a bright flash and a loud bang. The hot, lightning-like discharge created thousands of microscopic fractures inside the acrylic, resulting in a branching “Captured Lightning” sculpture (or Lichtenberg Figure).


A Three Dimensional Lichtenberg Figure

A Three Dimensional Lichtenberg Figure

Lichtenberg figures are branching electric discharges that sometimes appear on the surface or the interior of insulating materials. They are named after the German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who originally discovered and studied them. When they were first discovered, it was thought that their characteristic shapes might help to reveal the nature of positive and negative electric “fluids”.

In 1777, Lichtenberg built a large electrophorus to generate high voltage static electricity through induction. After discharging a high voltage point to the surface of an insulator, he recorded the resulting radial patterns in fixed dust. By then pressing blank sheets of paper onto these patterns, Lichtenberg was able to transfer and record these images, thereby discovering the basic principle of modern Xerography. This discovery was also the forerunner of modern day plasma physics.

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These structures can form on the human body as a result of lightning strikes as well, nothing we recommend trying at home though.

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