Making lightning

BBC News: Tripping the light fantastic.

It is near pitch-black in the viewing room where we are standing; a soft red glow exuding from a warning light above the door barely cuts through the darkness. A klaxon sounds, and, suddenly, a giant flash of lightning bolts through the air, accompanied by a deafening crackle, lighting up the room for a fraction of a second. Every day, millions of volts of electricity pass through the National Grid High Voltage Laboratory at the University of Manchester. The hangar-like facility is packed with enormous pieces of equipment: transformers, generators and the odd huge aluminium sphere stand tall. A glass-fronted viewing room, where experiments can be safely watched, is adjacent. It is one of the few places in the UK where scientists can work with huge voltages at first-hand.

Another place that has that kind of voltage is the National Grid Headquarters in Leatherhead, Surrey. I did my industrial placement year there, between the second and final years of my degree, and our lab had a 10kV (ten thousand volts) test line coming in straight off the grid. On lightning test days you could go to the observation window and see two metre sparks flashing around the hangar, and walk outside to the three storey giant mushroom designed to test stuff at extremely high voltages. There were salt fog chambers directly under the boss’s office that went bang occasionally. They’re for endurance testing, simulating years worth of weather to see how long equipment will last in the field.

The most important thing I learned that year was always to pay attention to where cables are buried. Contractors were doing building work on the site next door and despite being told where the 10kV line was, one guy drilled straight through it. There was a huge buzz and the building went dark. The contractor staggered onto our parking area, trousers in shreds, and promptly fell over. We called an ambulance and he survived unscathed. The drill was completely wrecked, which probably saved his life.

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