New lab zaps aircraft with lightning bolts

Morgan-Botti Lightning Laboratory lighting up new composite materials in airliners

A new laboratory has opened that will study the impact of lightning strikes on airplanes, particularly new aircraft that are made up of carbon composite materials.

 The $2.5 million Morgan-Botti Lightning Laboratory at Cardiff University in the UK says its facilities will generate up to 200,000 Amps. "To put this in context, an average lightning strike has 32,000 Amps and the maximum amount of electricity powering a house is about 100 Amps," the University stated.

The lab, which will be largely funded by the EADs aerospace firm and the Welsh government, will be used by manufacturers of composites, lightning conductors and aircraft manufacturers, including the new carbon composite technology finding its way into aircraft and spacecraft development.

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Lightning strikes happen on average every second around the Earth and they hit many aircraft about once a year so learning more about its impact on flying structures is important, said Professor Manu Haddad of the Cardiff School of Engineering.  "This new facility will allow Cardiff University to work closely with manufacturers and users of composite materials and components to optimize the electrical properties of the material and structure designs, and, ultimately, the research aims to contribute to the development of more environmentally-friendly and safer aircraft".

According to a BBC report the lab has "complex systems that ensure the safety of researchers, with the control area separated securely from the live equipment. Switches are operated by compressed air and fiber optics are used to carry signals from instruments so no cables or other conductors run between the two sections. The experiments themselves are carried out within a double steel-lined cage which also provides an acoustic shield for the loud blast when the lightning bolts are fired."

As we mentioned, it is not uncommon for airliners to be hit by lightning.  According to Lightning Technologies, a lighting mitigation company, aircraft often trigger lightning when flying through a heavily charged region of a cloud. In these instances, the lightning flash originates at the airplane and extends away in opposite directions. Although record keeping is poor, smaller business and private airplanes are thought to be struck less frequently because they usually do not adhere to rigid schedules.

"The last confirmed civilian plane crash that was directly attributed to lightning in the U.S. was in 1967, when lightning caused a catastrophic fuel tank explosion. Since then, much has been learned about how lightning can affect airplanes, and protection techniques have improved. Airplanes receive a rigorous set of lightning certification tests to verify the safety of their designs.

Modern passenger jets have miles of wires and dozens of computers and other instruments that control everything from the engines to the passengers' music headsets. These computers, like all computers, are sometimes susceptible to upset from power surges. So, in addition to the design of the exterior of the aircraft, the lightning protection engineer must assure that no damaging surges or transients can be induced into the sensitive equipment inside of the aircraft," the company states.

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