The Chemistry of Lightning


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Lightning the most beautiful and the most destructive force on our planet. In one flash of lightning, it can contain up to 5 billion joules of energy(enough energy to power a whole house for a month). They seem to be very thin columns of light but at temperatures of 54,000 degrees fahrenheit, it is hotter than the surface of the sun. Each year over a thousand people around the world die from direct hits from lightning strikes. Why am I doing this project over lightning, the fact is that I want people to understand that our weather plays such a critical role in our lives that the weather affected our 2 million year history on Earth. Lightning can affect my life, during the summer nights thunderstorms lightning lights up the sky the thunder like a cracking explosion this leaves me trembling in my bed, hoping the lightning doesn’t hit our house(I sort of have a bit of astrophobia only during a storm). So, lightning is both so beautiful and so destructive.
Composition of ...

Lightning is in fact a huge discharge that happens when negative charge electrons are so separate from the positive charged ions in the cloud that the electrons suddenly move to different regions in the cloud(or towards the ground), so they could hatch on to any positive ions, neutralize themselves, and be happy.

Main Chemicals, Compounds, Components

Unfortunately, the only thing that lightning is made of is basically electrons chipped off of water molecules in cumulonimbus clouds(or thunderheads for dummies). The lightning can occur at anytime of day along with thunderstorms. Those electrons get such a negative charge that they need to attach to positive ions so they can be happy :D.

Chemistry's Role

Lightning can be created mostly in thunderstorms As thunderstorms are developing, the water molecules get at a certain altitude where they freeze into what they’ll become as hailstones(on a microscopic scale). The updrafts and downdrafts in storms causes water molecules to crash into one another, the electrons in the atoms are chipped away and they move towards the bottom of the  cumulonimbus, while the positive ions move up into the upper portions of the thunderhead. This separation between positive and negative creates an electric field around the storm, the stronger the separation the stronger the field. The separation of charges reaches such a strong point that the electrons start moving around to connect to any positive ions to be happy. On the ground as the negative charges in the clouds build up  the ground is building up positive ions hoping to be happy as well. Meanwhile the electrons are moving around in the air as step-leaders. The positive charged particles move up from the ground to intercept the negative step leader so a channel opens up for the electrons to move through. The billions of trillions of electrons move from the cloud to the ground in the form of lightning, and thus the both charges are neutralized. What makes this very incredible, the point of the electrons started moving to where lightning is created happens in only a few milliseconds! We are able to create artificial lightning, but we can’t create lightning with as much energy as natural lightning.

Background Research

Due to high temperatures in the lightning bolt, lightning is able to create ozone gas(or O3). Its a type of gas that blocks out most ultraviolet rays coming from the sun keeping us from dying basically.

Lightning can create all kinds of compounds such as phosphite found in objects call fulgurites remnants of lightning strikes hitting sand I believe.

The thunder that we hear after the lightning is a result of the air around the bolt heats up and expands outward in a shockwave.

Most lightning in the world most often are found in tropics where theres more humidity or more water molecules.


Cloud to ground lightning strike Earth 100 times per second.

Lightning is cause by an imbalance between positive and negative charges.

Ice crystals in clouds causes a negative charge, stuff on ground has a positive charge these charges build up until the discharge occurs.

2000 people die each year by lightning strikes.

Lightning can contain up to one billion volts of electricity.

Typical CG lightning culminates in formation of electrically conducting plasma channel through the air 3 mi. tall.

70% of lightning occurs most commonly in the tropics(near the equator) where atmospheric convection is the greatest.

Lightning storms happen where a cold, dry air mass and a warm, moist air masses

During a positive lightning strike theres huge quantities of radio waves generated.

Positive lightning can bring down an aircraft(ex. Pan Am Flight 214(1962)).

Its because of updrafts, downdrafts, freezing and particle collisions inside the storm makes these storms become positively charged at the top while its negatively charged at the bottom.

The separation in these charges leads to an electric field of a storm, the charge separation gets stronger so does the electric field.

The intense electric field causes the air around the cloud to break down or ionize allowing currents to flow through the ionized air(or plasma), trying to neutralize the charges.

Paths of this ionized air is called a step leader.

Positive charges on the ground gets bigger, people and objects respond to the electric field by sending out positive streamers.

When a step leader and streamer meet they form a path for the lightning to travel from the cloud to the ground.

This is how lightning strikes occur.

The immense heat and other energy giving off during a stroke has been found to convert elements into compounds(compounds essential for living things).

Lightning can occur in volcanic eruptions, extremely intense forest fires, surface nuclear detonation, heavy snowstorms, and large hurricanes.

Thunder occurs when lightning heats the air around the bolt causing it to expand rapidly( or explode if that sounds more interesting).

Lightning can produce ozone(O3 to be exact).

Energy from lightning heats the air from 18,000 degrees fahrenheit to 60,000 degrees fahrenheit(hotter than the surface of the sun).

Lightning can contain from a 100 million to a billion volts of electricity.

Air acts as an insulator between positive and negative charges  when these charges build up a discharge occurs between positive and negative charges.

Lightning can come in any color depending on what the light of the lightning travels through to get to your eyes.

Positive lightning is more dangerous due to being 6 times stronger than ordinary lightning(forming at top of storm clouds), flash duration typically longer, and they can strike up to 10 miles away(which is why they are called “a bolt from the blue”).

Water and ice move around in the cloud; forced upward in storms updrafts, downed by gravity and compressed in the clouds.

Just like rubbing a balloon creating electricity, the clouds become fully charged not fully known how it happens but positive charged particles move towards the top of storm clouds while negative charged particles stays at bottom of clouds.

When the charge separation is just enough the pos. and neg. charges seek each other to neutralize.

Streamers on the ground move up to complete a pathway for the discharge to occur and that discharge is the lightning we see.

Temperature in lightning reaches 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit. 6 times hotter than the surface of the sun.

Lightning seems to be able to create phosphorus or more specific phosphite by striking soil and create these things called fulgurites.

The lightning can contain up to billions or trillions of electrons.

The step leader moves at 60mps.

A bolt can contain up to 5 billion joules of energy, this can power up a whole house for a month.

About the Author

Reaching the age of 18 yrs. old on May 3, 2014, Josef Pfau is a red-haired Senior High School student graduating in the year 2015. His dream is to become a meteorologists which is what led him to do a lot of research on how the weather affects daily lives. He’s been an honor roll student since he started 7th grade, he was recently inducted into the National Honors Society in April 2014, and his overall GPA in high school is well over 3.5.