Lichtenberg figures or Scar of death (Lichtenberg-Figuren, or “Lichtenberg Dust Figures”) are branching electric discharges that sometimes appear on the surface or the interior of insulating materials. They are named after the German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who originally discovered and studied them. When they were first discovered, it was thought that their characteristic shapes might help to reveal the nature of positive and negative electric “fluids”. In 1777, Lichtenberg built a large electrophorus to generate high voltage static electricity through induction. After discharging a high voltage point to the surface of an insulator, he recorded the resulting radial patterns by sprinkling various powdered materials onto the surface. By then pressing blank sheets of paper onto these patterns, Lichtenberg was able to transfer and record these images, thereby discovering the basic principle of modern Xerography. This discovery was also the forerunner of modern day plasma, fourth state of matter. Although Lichtenberg only studied 2-dimensional (2D) figures, modern high voltage researchers study 2D and 3D figures (electrical trees) on, and within, insulating materials. Lichtenberg figures are now known to be examples of fractals.
Credit: Ray Morrison See a larger image here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/twlv0pap8y8zz4a/Earth_lighning_strikes.jpg
Modern “3D Lichtenberg Figures” or “Electrical treeing” in a block of clear acrylic. The fractal discharge pattern is believed to extend down to the molecular level. Actual size: 3″ × 3″ × 2″ (76 mm × 76 mm × 51 mm)
Lichtenberg figures may also appear on the skin of lightning strike victims. These are reddish, fernlike patterns that may persist for hours or days. They are also a useful indicator for medical examiners when determining the cause of death. Lichtenberg figures appearing on people are sometimes called lightning flowers, and they are thought to be caused by the rupture of capillaries under the skin due to the passage of the lightning current or the shock wave from the lightning discharge as it flashes over the skin. A lightning strike can also create a large Lichtenberg Figure in grass surrounding the point struck. These are sometimes found on golf courses or in grassy meadows. Fulgurites may also be created as sand and soil is fused into glassy tubes by the intense heat of the current.
Electrical treeing often occurs in high-voltage equipment prior to causing complete breakdown. Following these Lichtenberg figures within the insulation during post-mortem investigation of an insulation failure can be useful in finding the cause of breakdown. An experienced high-voltage engineer can see from the direction and the shape of trees and their branches where the primary cause of the breakdown was situated and possibly find the initial cause. Broken-down transformers, high-voltage cables, bushings and other equipment can usefully be investigated in this manner. The insulation is unrolled (in the case of paper insulation) or sliced in thin slices (in the case of solid insulating materials). The results are then sketched or photographed to create a record of the breakdown process.
The branching, self-similar patterns observed in Lichtenberg figures exhibit fractal properties. Lichtenberg figures often develop during the dielectric breakdown of solids, liquids, and even gases. Their appearance and growth appear to be related to a process called diffusion-limited aggregation or DLA. A useful macroscopic model that combines an electric field with DLA was developed by Niemeyer, Pietronero, and Weismann in 1984, and is known as the dielectric breakdown model (DBM). Although the electrical breakdown mechanisms of air and PMMA are considerably different, the branching discharges turn out to be related. So, it should not be surprising that the branching forms taken by natural lightning also have fractal characteristics.
A similar phenomenon is sometimes seen when lightning hits a grassy field, as in this picture where lightning struck a golf course flagpole, leaving this beautiful 25 foot Lichtenberg figure on the green:
(From “Lightning and Lichtenberg Figures” by Cherington, Olson and Yarnell, Injury, Volume 34, Issue 5, May 2003)
Note the similarity between the figure above and the Lichtenberg figure below (illuminated from below by blue LED’s):
Following is a short video clip showing a huge 15″ x 20″ x 2″ specimen being discharged during a 2010 production run at Captured Lightning. . This specimen was first charged on one surface by a 5 MeV electron beam. The fully-charged specimen was then (very carefully!) flipped over and irradiated once again on the other side. This created two independent charge planes, each located about 1/2″ below the large surfaces. Prior to discharging, the estimated potential of these internal charge planes was about 2.6 million volts. Because of the two charge planes and its large size, this specimen stored significantly more electrostatic energy (over 4 kilo Joules) than most of our other specimens.
Safety precautions were necessary to prevent the possibility of receiving a dangerous electrical shock. Although the main discharge is very brief (under 500 billionths of a second!), the video successfully captured the brilliance of the main discharge in a single video frame (below). Numerous secondary discharges continued to flash after the main discharge, continuing sporadically for over 30 minutes afterward. This video is courtesy of Bill Hathaway, GCL Laboratories. The resulting sculpture, cradled within a custom walnut light base and illuminated by an array of white and blue LED’s, is also shown below.
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