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Extreme Machines

Don’t Try This At Home: How To Catch A Lightning In A Bottle

Giving snowballs a chance in the hell of a foundry, catching lightning in a bottle and making a wall talk: Thomas Edison did none of these seemingly impossible things.

But then, he never had the opportunity.

This year, GE is celebrating Edison’s birthday, which President Reagan proclaimed as National Inventors Day, by taking on the impossible challenges of lore. On Feb. 11, the company will release videos that prove these tasks are “unimpossible.”

Jeffrey Sullivan leads the dielectrics lab at GE Global Research. That’s a fancy way of saying that he deals a lot with electrical insulators. Last fall he was part of team that caught an artificial bolt of lightning in a bottle and then use the charge to start a car. Take a look.

GE Reports: What do you do in your lab?

Jeffrey Sullivan: We work on all kinds of insulation that goes inside aircraft engines, turbines, medical imaging machines, the grid and other technology.

GER: How did that help you with catching a lightning in a bottle?

JS: It was an unusual assignment because nobody’s ever done it before, right. But all this diverse knowledge, we call it the GE Store, allowed us to move fast.


GER: Where did you start?

JS: We pulled the team together. There were about five people from our high voltage and power conversion labs and also an expert in lightning.

GER: That’s a real job?

JS: You would be surprised. We make so many machines that have to survive lighting strikes, everything from jet engines to wind turbines and the electrical grid.

We broke the problem into three parts: we had to make the lightning, we had to capture it in a bottle, and then, to prove we succeeded, use the energy to start a car.

GER: What was the hardest part?

JS: Oddly, it was actually the manufacturing of the lightning. We had to go to a special lab in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and we didn’t know the parameters of their power supply. Also, artificial lightning is a different beast from lightning bolts you see in nature.

GER: How so?

JS: Each lightning bolt has multiple components. First there’s the flash, but it doesn’t really have that much energy. The energy arrives after the initial impulse. In nature it all happens pretty much at the same time, but in the lab they tend to break those components apart. We had to engineer the lightning. We kind of hybridized it to take advantage of both the natural and the artificial. We engineered gaps in the apparatus that allowed us to obtain a high voltage flash and then to lower the voltage and get much higher current and energy. We basically simplified the lightning to its bare minimum.


GER: What does bare minimum lightning look like?

JS: The pulse generator at the lab can go to 2.4 million volts. I think we were getting about a million.

GER: What about the vessel?

JS: We built it in our lab. It contained a standard supercapacitor from machine catalog. We knew it could hold enough charge to start a car. We had used the vessel to start my Camry and my colleague’s Civic. But these capacitors are limited by how quickly they can absorb the energy. If you start throwing energy at it too quickly, the voltage can build up dangerously high across the device, and you could actually cause it to arc across the device. We call it flashover. To keep that from happening, we put a device called an inductor between the last receiving electrode for the lighting and the capacitor. This slowed down that initial peak and the delivery of the energy in a way that prevented the flashover. Once we got past that challenge, it was pretty straightforward to dump the current into the capacitor.

GER: Did you catch enough of the lighting to start a car?

JS: We figured we needed about 5,000 joules to start the car. To put that into a perspective, it’s just enough to run a hairdryer for 5 seconds. But the filmmakers showed up with an old Fiat 600. It has a small two-cylinder engine that was actually pretty easy to turn. We removed the battery and attached the jumper cables to the vessel. In the end, I don’t think we needed more than 1,000 joules.


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