Lab will create ‘fake lightning strike’ to test new aeroplanes

Oct 13 2011 Graham Henry A LAB which can create artificial lightning close to the strength of the most violent lightning bolts ever recorded has been unveiled in Wales. The Morgan-Botti Lightning Laboratory at Cardiff University will be used to…

Oct 13 2011

Graham Henry

A LAB which can create artificial lightning close to the strength of the most violent lightning bolts ever recorded has been unveiled in Wales.

The Morgan-Botti Lightning Laboratory at Cardiff University will be used to test new materials being used to construct aeroplanes – and may prove vital for keeping planes in the sky in rough weather.

The Innovation Works facility will be able to generate up to 200,000 amps, significantly more than the 32,000 amps produced by the average lightning bolt, and the 100 amps needed to power a house.

The most violent lightening bolts ever recorded have been more than 250,000 amps.

Scientists will make use of the facility – the only non-commercial artificial lightning lab in the UK – to test the strength of new components being used primarily in wing manufacturing.

Professor Manu Haddad, from Cardiff University’s School of Engineering, said that the huge charges generated by capacitors at the lab represented a magnified, controlled version of naturally-occurring lightening storms.

“If you look at lightening itself, it is a lot of charge gathering in the base of a cloud, and suddenly being discharged to the ground by the strike,” he said.

“We can mirror this using capacitors – it can make a large charge, in a similar way, and discharge them very quickly.

“Once you close the switch of the capacitor, the change can be released in fractions of a second.

“In aerospace, the industry needs to protect planes against the worst that can be generated against them.”

He said that, on average, every aircraft will be struck by lightening of varying degrees at least once over the course of a year, so testing of materials that make up the plane’s structure was “crucial.”

He said: “You have to make sure that the materials you use in aircraft can withstand the worst conditions of lightning in testing.

“Only last week a plane in Austria was hit by lightning as it left Vienna on its way to Innsbruck, and was forced to abandon it and go back to Vienna for repairs. It can do, at the least, localised damage.

“Cardiff University is the only university in the country that has this research facility.”

The opening coincided with the opening of a £400m Airbus factory in Flintshire, guaranteeing 6,000 jobs at its base, to manufacture composites within wings – the kind of material the artificial lightning will test.

Composites are emerging as a green technology in aircraft manufacturing as they are light and strong – but require rigorous testing to make sure they are safe.

Mr Philip Leichauer, the lab’s project manager, said: “Our new laboratory will generate controlled lightning, which will be used with advanced test and measurement methods to further understanding of lightning effects on materials, and ensure future aircraft remain safe, as they are today.”

The new facility is named after former First Minister Rhodri Morgan and Dr Jean Botti, chief technical officer for the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS).

It was financed by around £1.6m funding from the Welsh Government and EADS and will be used by aircraft and composite manufacturers, as well as the university’s High Voltage Energy Systems research group.

Dr Jean Botti, EADS chief technical officer, said: “EADS is very pleased, once again, to expand its research footprint in Wales and also partner with a leading academic institute like Cardiff University.

“The importance of the research that will be conducted at the new lab cannot be understated, given its importance to civil aviation.”

The facility was opened by First Minister Carwyn Jones, who said it was the only facility of its kind in the UK.

He said: “This is a flagship centre for aerospace research within Wales, and will provide a magnet for industries developing composite materials and encourage Research and Development investment into our country.”