Do naturally formed nanoparticles make ball lightning?

Ball lightning is an odd and obscure phenomenon; reports describe glowing globes the size of footballs, which float along at walking speed, sometimes entering buildings, and whose existence sometimes comes to an end with a small explosion. Observations are generally associated with thunderstorms. I’ve never seen ball lightning myself, though when I was a physics undergraduate at Cambridge in 1982 there was a famous sighting in the Cavendish Laboratory itself. This rather elusive phenomenon has generated a huge range of potential explanations, ranging from the exotic (anti-matter meteorites, tiny black holes) to the frankly occult. But there seems to be growing evidence that ball lightning may in fact be the manifestation of slowly combusting, loose aggregates of nanoparticles formed by the contact of lightning bolts with the ground.

The idea that ball lightning consists of very low density aggregates of finely divided material originates with a group of Russian scientists. A pair of scientists from New Zealand, Abrahamson and Dinnis, showed some fairly convincing electron micrographs of chains of nanoparticles produced by the contact of electrical discharges with the soil, as reported in this 2000 Nature paper (subscription required for full paper). Abrahamson’s theory is also described in this news report from 2002, while a whole special issue of the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions from that year puts the Abrahamson theory in context with the earlier Russian work and the observational record. The story is brought up to date with some very suggestive looking experimental results reported a couple of weeks ago in the journal Physical Review Letters, in a letter entitled Production of Ball-Lightning-Like Luminous Balls by Electrical Discharges in Silicon (subscription required for full article), by a group from the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco in Brazil. In their very simple experiment, an electric arc was made with a silicon wafer, in ambient conditions. This produced luminous balls, from 1- 4 cm in diameter, which moved erratically along the ground, sometimes squeezing through gaps, and disappeared after 2 – 5 seconds leaving no apparent trace. Their explanation is that the discharge created silicon nanoparticles which aggregated to form a very open, low density aggregate, and subsequently oxidised to produce the heat that made the balls glow.

The properties of nanoparticles which make this explanation at least plausible are fairly familiar. They have a very high surface area, and so are substantially more reactive than their parent bulk materials. They can aggregate into very loose, fractal, structures whose effective density can be very low (not much greater, it seems in this case, than air itself). And they can be made a variety of physical processes, some of which are to be found in nature.

3 thoughts on “Do naturally formed nanoparticles make ball lightning?”

  1. I thought your readers would be interested in looking at these energy technologies and EPS’s theoretic base for ball lighting.

    Aneutronic Fusion: Here I am not talking about the big science ITER project taking thirty years, but the several small alternative plasma fusion efforts.

    There are three companies pursuing hydrogen-boron plasma toroid fusion, Paul Koloc, Prometheus II, Eric Lerner, Focus Fusion and Clint Seward of Electron Power Systems

    Vincent Page (a technology officer at GE!!) gave a presentation at the 05 6th symposium on current trends in international fusion research , which high lights the need to fully fund three different approaches to P-B11 fusion

    He quotes costs and time to development of P-B11 Fusion as tens of million $, and years verses the many decades and ten Billion plus $ projected for ITER and other “Big” science efforts

    Here are the links:

    A resent DOD review of EPS technology reads as follows:

    “MIT considers these plasmas a revolutionary breakthrough, with Delphi’s
    chief scientist and senior manager for advanced technology both agreeing
    that EST/SPT physics are repeatable and theoretically explainable. MIT and
    EPS have jointly authored numerous professional papers describing their
    work. (Delphi is a $33B company, the spun off Delco Division of General
    “Cost: no cost data available. The complexity of reliable mini-toroid
    formation and acceleration with compact, relatively low-cost equipment
    remains to be determined. Yet the fact that the EPS/MIT STTR work this
    technology has attracted interest from Delphi is very significant, as the
    automotive electronics industry is considered to be extremely demanding of
    functionality per dollar and pound (e.g., mil-spec performance at
    Wal-Mart-class ‘commodity’ prices).”

    EPS, Electron Power Systems seems the strongest and most advanced, and I love the scalability, They propose applications as varied as home power generation@ .ooo5 cents/KWhr, cars, distributed power, airplanes, space propulsion , power storage and kinetic weapons.

    It also provides a theoretic base for ball lighting : Ball Lightning Explained as a Stable Plasma Toroid
    The theoretics are all there in peer reviewed papers. It does sound to good to be true however with names like MIT, Delphi, STTR grants, NIST grants , etc., popping up all over, I have to keep investigating.

    Recent support has also come from one of the top lightning researcher in the world, Joe Dwyer at FIT, when he got his Y-ray and X-ray research published in the May issue of Scientific American,
    Dwyer’s paper:

    and according to Clint Seward it supports his lightning models and fusion work at Electron Power Systems

    lightning produces thermonuclear reaction
    This new work By Dr.Kuzhevsky on neutrons in lightning: Russian Science News is also supportive of Electron Power Systems fusion efforts .

    Vincent Page (a technology officer at GE!!) gave a presentation at the 05 6th symposium on current trends in international fusion research , which high lights the need to fully fund three different approaches to P-B11 fusion (Below Is an excerpt).

    “for larger plant sizes
    Time to small-scale Cost to achieve net if the small-scale
    Concept Description net energy production energy concept works:
    Koloc Spherical Plasma: 10 years(time frame), $25 million (cost), 80%(chance of success)
    Field Reversed Configuration: 8 years $75 million 60%
    (Eric Lerner)Plasma Focus: 6 years $18 million 80%”

    Looks like Eric Lerner is moving down the road!!

    U.S., Chilean Labs to Collaborate on Testing Scientific Feasibility of Focus Fusion
    The learning curve is so steep now, and with the resources of the online community, I’m sure we can rally greater support to solve this paramount problem of our time.

    However, short of a Energy “silver bullet” like fusion , Here is a fully DOABLE technology

    Time to Master the Carbon Cycle

    Man has been controlling the carbon cycle , and there for the weather, since the invention of agriculture, all be it was as unintentional, as our current airliner contrails are in affecting global dimming. This unintentional warm stability in climate has over 10,000 years, allowed us to develop to the point that now we know what we did,………… and that now……… we are over doing it.

    The prehistoric and historic records gives a logical thrust for soil carbon sequestration.
    I wonder what the soil biome carbon concentration was REALLY like before the cutting and burning of the world’s virgin forest, my guess is that now we see a severely diminished community, and that only very recent Ag practices like no-till and reforestation have started to help rebuild it. It makes implementing Terra Preta soil technology like an act of penitence, a returning of the misplaced carbon to where it belongs.

    Energy, the carbon cycle and greenhouse gas management

    On the Scale of CO2 remediation:

    It is my understanding that atmospheric CO2 stands at 379 PPM, to stabilize the climate we need to reduce it to 350 PPM by the removal of 230 Billion tons.

    The best estimates I’ve found are that the total loss of forest and soil carbon (combined
    pre-industrial and industrial) has been about 200-240 billion tons. Of
    that, the soils are estimated to account for about 1/3, and the vegetation
    the other 2/3.

    Since man controls 24 billion tons in his agriculture then it seems we have plenty to work with in sequestering our fossil fuel co2 emissions as charcoal.

    As Dr. Lehmann at Cornell points out, “Closed-Loop Pyrolysis systems such as Dr. Danny Day’s are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon negative”. and that ” a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions! ”

    Terra Preta Soils Technology: Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration and 3X Fertility Too

    This some what orphaned new soil technology speaks to so many different interests and disciplines that it has not been embraced fully by any. I’m sure you will see both the potential of this system and the convergence needed for it’s implementation.

    The integrated energy strategy offered by Charcoal based Terra Preta Soil technology may
    provide the only path to sustain our agricultural and fossil fueled power
    structure without climate degradation, other than nuclear power.

    The economics look good, and truly great if we had CO2 cap & trade in place:

    Terra Preta soils I feel has great possibilities to revolutionize sustainable agriculture into a major CO2 sequestration strategy.
    I thought, I first read about these soils in ” Botany of Desire ” or “Guns,Germs,&Steel” but I could not find reference to them. I finely found the reference in Charles Mann’s “1491”, but I did not realize their potential .

    I have heard that National Geographic is preparing a big Terra Preta (TP) article.

    Nature article: Putting the carbon back Black is the new green:

    Here’s the Cornell page for an over view:

    This Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and has been viewed by 17,000 folks. ( I post everything I find on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here):

    Terra Preta Discussion , central data base, and Mail list at REPP-CREST:

    There is an ecology going on in these soils that is not completely understood, and if replicated and applied at scale would have multiple benefits for farmers and environmentalist.

    Terra Preta creates a terrestrial carbon reef at a microscopic level. These nanoscale structures provide safe haven to the microbes and fungus that facilitate fertile soil creation, while sequestering carbon for many hundred if not thousands of years. The combination of these two forms of sequestration would also increase the growth rate and natural sequestration effort of growing plants.

    Ammonia Scrubbing Technology for Fossil Fuel Power Plants Emissions:

    Here is a great article that high lights this pyrolysis process , ( ) which could use existing infrastructure to provide Charcoal sustainable Agriculture , Syn-Fuels, and a variation of this process would also work as well for H2 production and Charcoal-Fertilizer, while sequestering CO2, NO2 and SO2 from Coal fired plants to build soils at large scales , be sure to read the “See an initial analysis NEW” link of this technology to clean up Coal fired power plants.
    Soil erosion, energy scarcity, excess greenhouse gas all answered through regenerative carbon management

    The reason TP has elicited such interest on the Agricultural/horticultural side of it’s benefits is this one static:

    One gram of charcoal cooked to 650 C Has a surface area of 400 m2 (for soil microbes & fungus to live on), now for conversion fun:

    One ton of charcoal has a surface area of 400,000 Acres!! which is equal to 625 square miles!! Rockingham Co. VA. , where I live, is only 851 Sq. miles

    Now at a middle of the road application rate of 2 lbs/sq ft (which equals 1000 sqft/ton) or 43 tons/acre yields 26,000 Sq miles of surface area per Acre. VA is 39,594 Sq miles.

    What this suggest to me is a potential of sequestering virgin forest amounts of carbon just in the soil alone, without counting the forest on top.

    To take just one fairly representative example, in the classic Rothampstead experiments in England where arable land was allowed to revert to deciduous temperate woodland, soil organic carbon increased 300-400% from around 20 t/ha to 60-80 t/ha (or about 30-40 tons per acre) in less than a century (Jenkinson & Rayner 1977). The rapidity with which organic carbon can build up in soils is also indicated by examples of buried steppe soils formed during short-lived interstadial phases in Russia and Ukraine. Even though such warm, relatively moist phases usually lasted only a few hundred years, and started out from the skeletal loess desert/semi-desert soils of glacial conditions (with which they are inter-leaved), these buried steppe soils have all the rich organic content of a present-day chernozem soil that has had many thousands of years to build up its carbon (E. Zelikson, Russian Academy of Sciences, pers. comm., May 1994).

    I have joked for years with local farmers that chicken litter is just Iowa top soil imported to the valley in the form of corn, now at least we’ll be able to keep it here rather than it running off into the Chesapeake Bay.

    All the Bio-Char Companies and equipment manufactures I’ve found:

    Carbon Diversion

    Eprida: Sustainable Solutions for Global Concerns

    BEST Pyrolysis, Inc. | Slow Pyrolysis – Biomass – Clean Energy – Renewable Ene

    Dynamotive Energy Systems | The Evolution of Energy

    Ensyn – Environmentally Friendly Energy and Chemicals

    Agri-Therm, developing bio oils from agricultural waste

    Advanced BioRefinery Inc.

    Technology Review: Turning Slash into Cash

    International K&K Enterprise Others

    The upcoming International Agrichar Initiative (IAI) conference to be held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. ( )

    If pre-Columbian Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 20% of the Amazon basin it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product them at scale.

    Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the whole equation of energy return over energy input (EROEI) for food and Bio fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.

    We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.

    I feel Terra Preta soil technology is the greatest of Ironies.
    That is: an invention of pre-Columbian American culture, destroyed by western disease, may well be the savior of industrial western society.


    Erich J. Knight
    Shenandoah Gardens
    E-mail: shengar at
    (540) 289-9750

  2. The whole phenomenon surrounding Ball Lightning is very intriguing. Like many of the naturally occurring, seemingly unexplainable events, the topic sets off many to speculate. The notion that Ball Lightning is the result of super charged Nanoparticals reminds me of an experiment conducted many years ago in a welding shop.

    The object of the exercise was to create Iron powder from a piece broken off an engine block which would then be used to repair a void in the same block. The piece was heated to near molten temperature with a Plasma Torch and then placed in a can of Liquid Argon which shattered it. The resulting powder was then placed in the void and heated again with the surround block.

    Some of the powder became airborne within the extraction field and the plasma charge lit what appeared to be a ball which, rather than being caught by the extractor, rolled off the the block and drifted across the floor.

    While the context was very different, it speaks, I suggest, to the possibility.

    My crew wants to reproduce the accident, what can I say, Explore!!

  3. This silicon particle explanation for ball lightning makes more sense than any other explanation. Bulk silicon does not burn, but silane gas (SiH4) certainly does. It is entirely possible that micro or nano particles of silicon could burn, since they would have a much higher surface to bulk ratio than bulk silicon and silicon does naturally oxidize in an oxygen environment.

    I am not familiar with the P-B11 fusion schemes that are posted here. However, Robert Bussard has recently presented his P-B11 scheme to a group of Google employees. His concept is interesting. Who knows how valid it is.

Comments are closed.