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Lightning bolt power and Back to the Future

  1. May 31, 2006 #1
    This is the second time I write this post because the first time it got deleted...so I must say that I am not going to go into all the detail that I went into the first time I wrote this..not to mention that I'm a bit p.o.'d.

    In back to the future, doc brown says that a lightning bolt can generate 1.21 GigaWatts of power...I read another website that said that an average lightning bolt produces only hundreds of MegaWatts, which is clearly not greater than or equal to 1.21 GigaWatts...would I be correct in assuming that the lightning bolt would not have be able to send Marty back to the future?
    http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/electric/lightning2.html" [Broken]

    Also, would there even have been a cable that would have been able to handle that much power back in 1955? We all know that if the cable couldn't have handled it, it would have burned up, thus the power never reaching the deLorean.

    A superconductor (such as mercury below 4 Kelvin) is an example of an "ideal conductor"? And by "ideal"..I mean no resisitivity. Is there such a conductor found naturally and applicable in normal terrestial temperatures?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. May 31, 2006 #2


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    The 1.21 gigawatt figure was simply made up. The actual "power" of a lightning bolt depends on many factors, including the total charge differential and the thickness of the plasma channel. Not all lightning bolts are the same.

    The total amount of heat dissipated by a cable depends not only on its resistivity, but also on the time period over which current is applied. If the current is passed for only a tiny fraction of a second, even standard household wiring can support enormous instantaneous currents.

    And no, no naturally-occuring high-temperature superconductors exist. Some man-made ones are getting close, though. The race is on.

    - Warren
  4. May 31, 2006 #3

    Using order-of-magnitude numbers from wikipedia, we have peak 100kA currents at >10^8 volts lasting for tens of microseconds; this translates to peak power of 10^13 watts (10 terawatts). The total amount of energy dissipated is ~500MJ (says wikipedia). For comparison, the world's largest capacitor bank stores ~50MJ, a tenth of that (http://www.rheinmetall.de/index.php?fid=1805&lang=3) [Broken].
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  5. May 31, 2006 #4
    Obviously though, most of the power dissipated would go into resistive heating of miles of atmosphere, rf radiation, x-rays, etc., rather than the short length of conducting cable. That's why trees struck by lightning aren't vaporized.
  6. May 31, 2006 #5
    On the subject of the movie, since it now seems that the bolt of lightning could have produced that much power and the wire could have handled it for instantaneous amounts of time, how about the electrical breakdown around that cable...surely couldn't have been good for Doc Brown's health.
  7. May 31, 2006 #6
    Movies take great license when portraying reality... usually they get it dead wrong. Makes it easier for them to write the script. Don't take any of this stuff literally...
  8. May 31, 2006 #7


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    As long as the cable was connected, Doc Brown would have been fine. The electricity finds the path of least resistance, and it ain't through the good doctor's arms.
  9. May 31, 2006 #8
    I've mentioned that the energy dissipated in a conductive cable is insignificant compared to what's dissipated over many miles of resistive atmosphere... look at lightning-protection cables (http://www.harger.com/catalog2004/2_1_1.pdf [Broken]), they're quite thin and they don't even start fires! (we hope)
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  10. May 31, 2006 #9
    If my original post hadn't been deleted, you might have read my disclaimer that I realize it's "just a movie" but still...fun to think about stuff
  11. May 31, 2006 #10
    I'm skeptical that that would apply at lightning frequencies (rf or so), inductive reactance becomes as important as resistance.
  12. May 31, 2006 #11
    You are correct. Though most of the current will seek a path of least resistance, a phenomenon happens when the current is extremely high:
    When the least-resistant path is "saturated", secondary emissions along previously high resistance paths can occur.

    Also, inductive reactance is a real and serious attribute of sudden discharge DC, especially with regards to lightning bolts.
  13. May 31, 2006 #12
    Also, keep in mind that lighting is DC, not AC, so their is no "frequency" per-se. It is a sudden discharge event, not cyclic. However, the sudden displacement of the many millions of electrons causes the brief but powerful RF(and other EM) radiation characteristic of radio "cracking" during a thunderstom.
    Last edited: May 31, 2006
  14. May 31, 2006 #13
    There are multiple discharges, at microsecond scales. Not sinusoidal AC by far, but still at RF timescales. There is a huge deltaI each time (up to 100kA), so magnetic effects should be profound.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 31, 2006
  15. May 31, 2006 #14
    Indeed, which accounts for the potentialy severe inductive reactance you mentioned and most people forget or do not think about.
  16. May 31, 2006 #15
    Rach3, you brought-up a potentially good clarifying point. Would it be fair to extend that lightning, though DC, is expressed as a "bastardized" sawtooth DC waveform?
  17. Jun 3, 2006 #16
    can we use this lighting energy for domestic purposes ? how can we harness it ?
  18. Jun 3, 2006 #17
    No. It's basically a static discharge, following the path of least resistance. Note that the 500MJ are distributed over several thousand meters of atmosphere - pretty dilute. It's also quite rare, at any fixed location. We've discussed this question before:


    Note the comment that at ~700MW globally, it's not enough to even be worth harnessing.
  19. Jun 4, 2006 #18
    i have an idea.. why cant we built giant electrolysis containers, where this occasional lightining will generate H2 and O2 from salt water (say oceans). In this way, we can have produce some of these elements in an economical way. But, yes.. we need to study where this is feasible, like some sea shores where the lightining happens quite frequently throught the year.
  20. Dec 8, 2006 #19
    Could you explain, what kind of physics work among the clouds for lightning to occur?
  21. Dec 8, 2006 #20
    Yes it would probably be much more worth the time to capture Earth's energy with other ways, like wind power (we already use water power).
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