Lightning zone: UF scientists are controlling bolts | News

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Lightning zone: UF scientists are controlling bolts

CAMP BLANDING, Fla. -- Lightning is perhaps the most unpredictable of all weather phenomena.

Where it will strike during a thunderstorm is a mystery and impossible to guess.

But at a testing facility in a remote part of North Florida, within range to hear machine gun fire on Camp Blanding, is where Dr. Martin Uman and Dr. Douglas Jordan are making some pretty impressive fire of their own.

"We are acknowledged as the number one lightning research and testing facility in the world," Uman said.

During the severe weather season, the two men are hard at work full time at the International Center for Lightning Research and Testing.

Uman and Jordan are University of Florida faculty who run the facility. 

They say they are only 3 others like this on the planet. 

"There's one in New Mexico, we know that," Uman said.

The other two he believes are in China, but research doesn't really show any others.

They are unique here because unlike others that only study natural lightning, or electricity in a lab, these guys can make lightning.

"When you study natural lightning, you're never pointed in the right direction," Uman said.

So they trigger it, and can focus it exactly where they want it so their high-speed cameras and computers can measure everything about an actual lightning bolt.

They've made the unpredictable, predictable. 

"We can control it," Uman said, standing under their rocket launch site.

They use model rockets with copper wire attached. 

One end of the wire is attached to the rocket, the other end to copper wiring by the launch site.

That can carry the current of the bolt through a box for measurement, then to the ground.

"This rocket has made lightning," Uman said while holding one of his models. "It has seen the Lord."

Uman said they do this to understand the physics of a lightning strike.

"We know generally what causes a strike, but there's so much we don't really know about it," he said.

Their largest source of funding is a $10 million contract from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

DARPA is the United States agency that researches and creates new technology for the military.

The natural inquiry then is, are they trying to turn lightning into a weapon?

Uman said jokingly that it's a decision above his pay scale.

"That's a question that once we understand how it works, someone else can worry about that," he said.

The two men say they're in it for the science. 

But to remain funded, they'll take contracts from pretty much any group that needs lightning testing.

"We'll test houses, we've tested runway lighting for airports against lightning strikes," Jordan said.

Pretty much, they say, if it can pay the bills of the testing facility they'll take it and then apply it to their learning and research.

"We have electrical engineering undergrads and graduate students from UF coming here and working the facility," Uman said.

The first lesson for students who return will be mowing the lawn. The one acre square test site is a bit overgrown since the thunderstorm season has ended.

"Got a lot of beautiful wild flowers out here right now, and watch out for the prickly pears," Jordan said.

By the look of all the "keep out" signs, fencing and military equipment, some may think there's sinister stuff happening here. 

But the professors say that's not true.

They say the main question they get from folks who drive by and notice them is about recreating their experiments at home.

"I get an email about once a month from someone asking how to do it," Uman said. "I respond with 'I'm not telling you.' It's just too dangerous."

Their contract with the government runs out in two years. 

And they are hoping for more companies to want their research so they can keep learning.

They're like two modern day Ben Franklins ... using rockets and wire instead of kites and string.


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