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Vaporized Dirt Might Be the Mysterious Cause of Ball Lightning

An analysis of one ball’s contents found silicon, iron and calcium—the main components of dirt

Beautiful, beautiful vaporized dirt. (Joe Thomissen)

Ball lightning, a mysterious, awesome looking phenomenon, has long perplexed scientists. While stories and descriptions of ball lightning go back centuries, actually finding and studying the balls of light is really hard. But now researchers think they might have cracked the lightning code.

Michael Slezak at New Scientist reports on new findings that analyzed the contents of the balls of light and found that the main elements inside the ball were silicon, iron and calcium—the same elements in dirt. Way back in 2000, John Abrahamson, a now-retired professor of chemical engineering, proposed a theory about ball lightning that fits this finding perfectly. Slezak explains:

Abrahamson surmised that when lightning hits the ground, the sudden, intense heat can vaporise silicon oxide in the dirt, and a shockwave blows the gas up into the air. If there's also carbon in the soil, perhaps from dead leaves or tree roots, it will steal oxygen from the silicon oxide, leaving a bundle of pure silicon vapour. But the planet's oxygen-rich atmosphere rapidly re-oxidises the hot ball of gas, and this reaction makes the orb glow briefly.

This new data suggests that Abrahamson was right all along about the lightning, although the study authors aren’t quite ready to concede that just yet. 

About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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