Observations of ball lightning have been reported for centuries, but the origin of this phenomenon remains an enigma. The ‘average’ ball lightning appears as a sphere with a diameter of 300 mm, a lifetime of about 10 s, and a luminosity similar to a 100-W lamp1. It floats freely in the air, and ends either in an explosion, or by simply fading from view. It almost invariably occurs during stormy weather2,3. Several energy sources have been proposed2,3,4 to explain the light, but none of these models has succeeded in explaining all of the observed characteristics. Here we report a model that potentially accounts for all of those properties, and which has some experimental support. When normal lightning strikes soil, chemical energy is stored in nanoparticles of Si, SiO or SiC, which are ejected into the air as a filamentary network. As the particles are slowly oxidized in air, the stored energy is released as heat and light. We investigated this basic process by exposing soil samples to a lightning-like discharge, which produced chain aggregates of nanoparticles: these particles oxidize at a rate appropriate for explaining the lifetime of ball lightning.
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We thank the Electrical and Electronic Engineering Department at the University of Canterbury, especially J. Woudberg, for the use of their high-voltage laboratory; C. Maslin, B. Lane, P. Niamskul and T. Benson for experimental work, supporting that of J. Dinniss, and D. Brown, N. Foot and R. Boyce for technical help. We also thank N. Andrews and J. McKenzie of the Plant and Microbial Sciences Department for electron microscopy.
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Abrahamson, J., Dinniss, J. Ball lightning caused by oxidation of nanoparticle networks from normal lightning strikes on soil. Nature 403, 519–521 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1038/35000525
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