Scientist Looks to Weaponize Ball Lightning

Uploaded on Feb 22, 2009

Ball lightning may be an atmospheric electrical phenomenon, the physical nature of which is still controversial. The term refers to reports of luminous, usually spherical objects which vary from pea-sized to several meters in diameter. It is sometimes associated with thunderstorms, but unlike lightning flashes, which last only a fraction of a second, ball lightning reportedly lasts many seconds.

Laboratory experiments have produced effects that are visually similar to reports of ball lightning, but it is presently unknown whether these are actually related to any naturally occurring phenomenon. Scientific data on natural ball lightning is scarce owing to its infrequency and unpredictability. The presumption of its existence is based on reported public sightings, and has therefore produced somewhat inconsistent findings. Given inconsistencies and the lack of reliable data, the true nature of ball lightning is still unknown. Until recently, ball lightning was often regarded as a fantasy or a hoax. Reports of the phenomenon were dismissed for lack of physical evidence, and were often regarded the same way as UFO sightings.

Natural ball lightning appears infrequently and unpredictably, and is therefore rarely (if ever truly) photographed. However, several purported photos and videos exist. Perhaps the most famous story of ball lightning unfolded when 18th-century physicist Georg Wilhelm Richmann installed a lightning rod in his home and was struck in the head - and killed - by a "pale blue ball of fire."

Scientist Looks to Weaponize Ball Lightning
By David Hambling
February 20, 2009 

Two hundred years ago this week, the warship HMS Warren Hastings was struck by a weird phenomenon: "Three distinct balls of fire" fell from the heavens, striking the ship and killing two crewmen, leaving behind "a nauseous, sulfurous smell," according to the Times of London.

Ball lightning has been the subject of much scientific scrutiny over the years. And, as with many powerful natural phenomena, the question arises: "Can we turn it into a weapon?" Peculiar as it may seem, that’s exactly what some researchers are working on — even though it hasn’t even been properly replicated in the laboratory yet.

The exact cause and nature of ball lighting has yet to be determined; there may be several different types, confusing matters further. But generally it manifests as a grapefruit-sized sphere of light moving slowly through the air which may end by fizzling out or exploding.

In the mid-’60s, the U.S. military started exploring ways that the phenomenon might be weaponized. Take this 1965 Defense Technical Information Center report on Survey of Kugelblitz Theories For Electromagnetic Incendiaries, (Kugelblitz is German for ball lighting). The document summarizes and evaluates the ball lightning theories then prevalent, and recommends "a theoretical and experimental Kugelblitz program… as a means of developing the theory into a weapons application." This led to an Air Force program called Harness Cavalier, which seems to have ended without producing anything conclusive.

However, some years later scientist Dr. Paul Koloc was looking at methods of containing high-temperature plasma during nuclear fusion. There are many schemes for containing plasma in donut-shaped magnetic fields using a device called a Tokomak. Koloc’s insight was that, under the right conditions, a donut-shaped mass of moving plasma would generate the required fields for containment itself. No Tokomak would be required for this "plasmoid," which would be completely stable and self-sustaining. It is a very close equivalent of the smoke ring — another type of dynamic "vortex ring," which remains stable over a period of time, unlike an unstructured cloud of smoke.

Koloc also theorized that if a donut-shaped plasmoid was created accidentally — say, during a lightning strike — it would remain stable for a period of seconds of minutes. This he believes is the explanation for ball lightning. He has a lot of competition from other, wildly different theories of ball lightning, though, from nanobatteries to vaporized silicon to black holes. There is no scientific consensus.

In the ’80s, Koloc’s team succeeded in creating small, short-lived plasmoids from "chicken egg to softball" size in the laboratory. It was a good start, but not enough to convince the world that he’s right about ball lightning. Ultimately the work might lead to a means of containing nuclear fusion… but there were some engineering challenges to tackle. Moreover, the scientific mainstream has not bought into the concept. While giant programs to achieve controlled fusion like ITER are sucking up billions, Koloc has found it much harder to attract funding. This is not like cold fusion or bubble fusion which has been challenged on scientific grounds, but it’s been very much sidelined in favor of other "confinement concepts" for fusion power.

However, in 2002, Koloc’s company, Prometheus II, briefly obtained funding from the Missile Defence Agency. The aim was to create stable ‘magnetoplasmoids’ a foot in diameter which would last between one and five seconds. In the subsequent phase, the magnetoplasmoid would be compressed and accelerate to two hundred kilometers a second. This "encapsulated EMP bullet" would make an idea anti-missile weapon, generating an intense electromagnetic pulse on impact which would scramble the guidance system and any electronics, as well as causing thermal damage.

Koloc called the weapon "Phased Hyper-Acceleration for Shock, EMP, and Radiation" — PHASER.

"It can be used for a range of purposes from stunning personnel to destroying the functionality of electronically operated devices, smaller rockets, vehicles and packages that represent an immediate threat to the United States," he wrote. "This dial-able PHASER weapon can be set on ‘Stun’ or dialed down, selecting a non-lethal level for persons needed for later interrogation… One mundane application for law enforcement would be the disruption of the engine electronics to stop vehicles that would otherwise be the target of a high-speed chase. Dialable versions of the PHASER will be available for use in civilian encounters."

Nothing seems to have resulted after the Phase I contract, so I contacted Koloc to see how his research had progressed. He confirmed that they had successfully formed plasmoids a foot in diameter, but that these could not be made sufficiently stable.

To make it work and overcome the stability problem, they need a device known as a "fast rising parallel plate transmission line." There was not enough funding for this and the company is still trying to raise funds.

"Once the re-engineered formation system becomes operational, we will proceed to form plasmoids of approximately 35 to 45 centimeters in diameter with a stable lifetime of from one to thirty seconds," says Prometheus II Vice President D. M. Cooper. "The plasmoids should be rugged and energetic, and should attain quiescence (thus becoming very stable) within two or three milliseconds of the formation pulse. The plasmoids will be useful for energy applications even if the military applications are not pursued."

So a ball lightning weapon remains tantalizingly out of reach –- or does it? As I noted in a previous article on military ball lightning, the USAF’s Phillips Laboratory examined a very similar concept in 1993. Again, this involved accelerating a donut-shaped mass of plasma to high speed as an anti-missile weapon in a project called Magnetically Accelerated Ring to Achieve Ultra-high Directed Energy and Radiation, or  MARAUDER. Based on the Air Force’s awesome Shiva Star power system, experiments spat out plasmoids at ultra-high speed that were expected to reach 3,000 kilometers a second by 1995. But nothing was published after 1993, and MARAUDER was classified, disappearing into the black world of secret programs.

Ball lighting is still mysterious 200 years later… and the next time a warship gets struck by weird fireballs they will probably be as baffled as were the sailors aboard the HMS Warren Hastings.

SOURCE: Wired News

HMS Warren Hastings
19th century engraving depicting ball lightning

Weather Eye: Charles Darwin, the meteorologist
Paul Simons

Two hundred years ago today a tremendous thunderstorm led to a bizarre incident.

HMS Warren Hastings, one of the largest ships of its time, was moored off Portsmouth. Conditions were clear and calm in the morning but at about 3pm a storm swept in from the west. The wind blew, rain fell in torrents and thunder erupted. “In the midst of the confusion, occasioned by the storm, three distinct balls of fire were emitted from the heavens,” reported The Times. “One of them fell into the main topmast cross-trees, killed a man on the spot and set the main mast on fire.”

“A few of the hands ran up the shrouds to bring down their dead companion, when the second ball struck one of them, and he fell, as if shot by cannon.” The man was hurled through the rigging and seriously injured. And then a third fireball killed another of the crew. “The force of the air, from the velocity of the ball, knocked down Mr Lucas, the chief mate, who fell below, but was not much hurt.” For some time after the storm subsided, “a nauseous, sulphureous smell continued on board the ship”.

Luke Howard, known for his classification of clouds, also reported a thunderstorm that same afternoon in Plymouth, where lightning badly damaged three houses.

Exactly what the fireballs were that struck the Warren Hastings remains unknown. However, it could have been a rare case of ball lightning, an electrical phenomenon linked to thunderstorms.

SOURCE: Times Online

HMS Warren Hastings

An English journal reported that during an 1809 storm, three "balls of fire" appeared and "attacked" the British ship HMS Warren Hastings. The crew watched one ball descend, killing a man on deck and setting the main mast on fire. A crewman went out to retrieve the fallen body and was struck by a second ball, which knocked him back and left him with mild burns. A third man was killed by contact with the third ball. Crew members reported a persistent, sickening sulfur smell afterward.

Related Links:

Magnetically Accelerated Ring to Achieve Ultra-high Directed Energy and Radiation

So a ball lightning weapon remains tantalizingly out of reach –- or does it? As I noted in a previous article on military ball lightning, the USAF’s Phillips Laboratory examined a very similar concept in 1993. Again, this involved accelerating a donut-shaped mass of plasma to high speed as an anti-missile weapon in a project called Magnetically Accelerated Ring to Achieve Ultra-high Directed Energy and Radiation, or  MARAUDER. Based on the Air Force’s awesome Shiva Star power system, experiments spat out plasmoids at ultra-high speed that were expected to reach 3,000 kilometers a second by 1995. But nothing was published after 1993, and MARAUDER was classified, disappearing into the black world of secret programs. 

SOURCE: Times Online

Publication Date 1993 Aug 01
OSTI Identifier OSTI ID: 7369133
Other Number(s) Journal ID: ISSN 0899-8221; CODEN: PFBPEI
Resource Type Journal Article
Resource Relation Journal Name: Physics of Fluids B; (United States); Journal Volume: 5:8

Subject 70



Research on forming, compressing, and accelerating milligram-range compact toroids using a meter diameter, two-stage, puffed gas, magnetic field embedded coaxial plasma gun is described. The compact toroids that are studied are similar to spheromaks, but they are threaded by an inner conductor. This research effort, named MARAUDER (Magnetically Accelerated Ring to Achieve Ultra-high Directed Energy and Radiation), is not a magnetic confinement fusion program like most spheromak efforts. Rather, the ultimate goal of the present program is to compress toroids to high mass density and magnetic field intensity, and to accelerate the toroids to high speed. There are a variety of applications for compressed, accelerated toroids including fast opening switches, x-radiation production, radio frequency (rf) compression, as well as charge-neutral ion beam and inertial confinement fusion studies. Experiments performed to date to form and accelerate toroids have been diagnosed with magnetic probe arrays, laser interferometry, time and space resolved optical spectroscopy, and fast photography. Parts of the experiment have been designed by, and experimental results are interpreted with, the help of two-dimensional (2-D), time-dependent magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) numerical simulations. When not driven by a second discharge, the toroids relax to a Woltjer--Taylor equilibrium state that compares favorably to the results of 2-D equilibrium calculations and to 2-D time-dependent MHD simulations. Current, voltage, and magnetic probe data from toroids that are driven by an acceleration discharge are compared to 2-D MHD and to circuit solver/slug model predictions. Results suggest that compact toroids are formed in 7--15 [mu]sec, and can be accelerated intact with material species the same as injected gas species and entrained mass [ge]1/2 the injected mass.

SOURCE: OSTI Energy Citations Database

Shiva Star
Description: Research into the military applications of high-energy pulsed power systems is conducted in the 34,261-square-foot Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate, High Power Systems Facility. The facility houses Shiva Star, the Air Force’s largest pulsed-power system. Shiva Star stores nearly 10 million joules of energy (equal to 5 pounds of TNT). It produces a pulse of 120,000 volts and 10 million amps in one-millionth of a second to produce a power flow equivalent to a terawatt. Shiva Star has evolved from a 1 megajoule system in 1975, a 2 megajoule system in 1979, to its final form as a 10 megajoule system in 1982. Shiva Star has been used over the years for many different types of experiments such as pulse compression to increase energy in the pulse, plasma liner implosion for production of x-rays, solid liner implosions to compress matter to high density and pressure, compact toroids for generating high-energy plasmas, and simulation of explosive pulsed-power generators.

Shiva Star

Shiva Star, originally just SHIVA, is a high-powered pulsed-power research device located at the Air Force Research Laboratory on the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The device was originally built in the 1970s for high-power X-ray research, was later re-directed to studies for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and is now being used for magnetized target fusion research. Shiva Star was named after the Hindu god Shiva, partly because its prototype originally had four "arms"; it now has six "arms".

Research at Princeton University in using Z-Pinch devices as a potential space propulsion device led to the exploration of the resulting x-ray production. This led directly to the original SHIVA effort in 1971.[1] In these experiments a thin foil of a "high-Z" metal (lead, uranium, etc.) was rapidly compressed magnetically by dumping the output of capacitor banks into magnetic coils. As it was first built in 1974, SHIVA I consisted of four banks of capacitors arranged in a cross shape with the experimental chamber in the middle. The capacitors held 1 MJ at 100 kV, able to discharge them in 1 ?s. Early experiments were hampered by problems with the implosion, but by 1976 successful implosions were being carried out. [2] The capacitor banks were then upgraded to 1.9 MJ at 120 kV in 1979, becoming Shiva II. Another upgrade followed in 1982, adding two more capacitor banks, thereby changing the shape from a cross to a star, resulting in the current Shiva Star device. Shiva Star was also used as a dense plasma focus driver in the mid-80s, and as an experimental magnetic driver for conventional projectiles in the late-80s.

Shiva Star was also used to develop an experimental weapon for the SDI effort between 1989 and 1995. The idea appears to have been to create "compact toroids" of high-density plasma that would be ejected from the device using a massive magnetic pulse.[2] The plasma projectiles would be shot at a speed expected to be 3000 km/s in 1995 and 10,000 km/s (3% of the speed of light) by 2000. A shot has the energy of 5 pounds of TNT exploding; although it caused little or no physical damage, the energy would shower the interior of the target with high-energy x-rays that would potentially destroy the electronics inside. The tests cost a few million dollars a year.[3] The project was scrapped at some time after 1995 because of problems keeping the plasma projectiles stable for the distances required by orbital weaponry.

Shiva Star was most recently revived for work in fusion research. A relatively new technique, magnetized target fusion, compresses a small plasma load with an imploding metal foil. Shiva Star's 10 MJ capacitor banks were perfect for this role, and starting in 2007 the new FRCHX experiment has been using Shiva Star with 1 mm thick aluminium foil that is accelerated to about 5 km/s.[4]


  1. P.J. Turchi and W.L. Baker, Generation of high-energy plasmas by electromagnetic implosion, J. Appl.Phys., Vol. 44, 11, (1973).
  2. 30 years of Pulsed Power R&D in AFRL Kirtland’s Building 322
  3. Jane's Defence Weekly 29 July 1998
  4. FRCHX Magnetized Target Fusion HEDLP Experiments

External links

Source: Wikipedia Shiva Star

Boeing considers feasibility of plasma-based weapons

NICK COOK JDW Aerospace Consultant

The Phantom Works, Boeing's prototyping organisation, has raised the possibility of plasma-based directed-energy weapons equipping a future breed of hypersonic aircraft platforms, such as those favoured for research and development by the Bush administration.

George Muellner, vice president and general manager of the Phantom Works, said that it should prove feasible to "skim off" some of the plasma that forms naturally around a M8.0 aerospace vehicle for use by an onboard directed-energy weapon.

Plasmas are ionised gases found naturally in lightning discharges and are commonly used in neon light tubes. They also build around the nose and leading edges of hypersonic vehicles and space re-entry systems as the air in front of them is shocked to high temperature.

Muellner's remarks are evidence of growing US interest in plasmas for a variety of aerospace applications. Russian designers have touted the benefits of plasmas for years, but officially their claims have been greeted with scepticism by the US aerospace establishment.

Russian companies and research institutions that have applied plasmas to aircraft have reported sizeable reductions in aircraft drag and the delayed onset of shock waves. "We've been doing work with the Russians and we've been doing plasma work on our own and we have seen considerable improvements in drag and sonic boom attenuation," Muellner said.

He downplayed US enthusiasm for other plasma benefit claimed by the Russians - a means of drastically reducing an aircraft's radar signature. "There's no way to effectively engineer it," he said, adding that the power and weight penalties imposed by plasma-generators would most likely outweigh the stealth benefits. Despite this, Russian engineers claim to have developed 'bolt-on' plasma-generators that dramatically cut an aircraft's radar cross-section while preserving its aerodynamic qualities; something, they say, that cannot be said of first-generation US stealth aircraft like the angular F-117A.

Muellner said that the use of naturally forming plasmas on a high-Mach aerospace vehicle could, in the long term, be applied "as a huge energy resource" to a directed-energy weapon for self-defence purposes. Observers have pointed out that such weapons could also be used offensively.

There are two possible engineering approaches. One is to divert the plasma into a chamber, excite it, introduce a laser-critical gas such as argon and direct the resultant energy through high-power optics as a laser beam. The other is to wrap small compact rings or 'toroids' of plasma energy in intense magnetic fields and fire them from a weapon as 'bullets' at air or ground targets.

In the early 1990s, the US Air Force was preparing tests at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, designed to lead to a ground-based plasma-weapon in the late 1990s capable of firing plasma bullets at incoming ballistic missile warheads. The enabling technology was a 'fast capacitor bank' called Shiva Star that could store 10 million joules of energy and release it instantaneously. Officials anticipated firing bullets at 3,000km/sec in 1995 and 10,000km/sec - 3% of the speed of light - by the turn of the century. The tests absorbed little more than a few million dollars of annual funding (Jane's Defence Weekly 29 July 1998).

Dumped into the 'soft' electronics of a re-entry vehicle, the bullets were envisaged as destroying multiple manoeuvring warheads at rapid reacquisition rates. By the second half of the last decade, the Shiva/plasma bullet programme was officially dropped. Observers have remarked on how its sudden disappearance at the time the firing tests were scheduled was redolent of a transition to the classified environment.

End of non-subscriber extract

SOURCE: Boeing considers feasibility of plasma-based weapons - Jane's Defence Weekly

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