Dear Dr. Universe,
I wanted to know if there is something lightning won’t come near. I just wanted to know so I could protect myself against lightning. –Thanks, Philip
If you’re thinking of making a suit of rubber, forget it. It won’t work. There is nothing lightning won’t come near. It is unpredictable and very powerful, so just get that rubber suit out of your head.
But, say you did want to make a suit so you could walk through a lightning storm. Could such a suit exist?
No. That’s dangerous. Never mind.
But what if…
“I don’t think you can build such a thing,” says Ali Mehrizi-Sani, an electrical engineer who teaches at Washington State University. “The lightning will go through you and basically what’s going to happen is it’s going to fry you. So it’s not very romantic.”
Fine. But we’re not looking for romance here. We’re looking for an awesome, lightning suit. The ever-cautious Mehrizi-Sani says the only way to really protect against lightning is to get inside and away from tall objects. Got it, kids?!
Still, after gentle persuasion, he agreed to design such a suit for us.
But first, some shocking details.
Lightning is electricity. We think of electricity as coming from power plants, and used to light our homes and charge our smartphones. But electricity is everywhere. In clouds, in cats, in the chair you’re sitting on. In you. Everywhere.
Not to get too technical, but everything in the universe is made atoms. An atom is smallest unit of matter in the universe. Inside each atom is a nucleus made of positively charged protons and neutral neutrons. Circling the nucleus is a swarm of negatively charged electrons. Opposites attract, and in this case the attraction between the electrons and protons is caused by something we call the electromagnetic force. That’s electricity and it’s in everything.
Sometimes there are more protons than electrons, and the charges just aren’t in balance. But they really want to be in balance, so they swap some energy to even everything out and — ZAP! — there’s a shock. It’s what is happening when static electricity zaps you as you touch a doorknob or pet your kitty. (It hurts on the nose. Trust me.)
The same principle is at work with lightning, except on a much larger scale. To understand this, let me first give you three new words that we use to describe electricity. They are voltage, current, and resistance. Since it’s hard to picture electricity at work, let’s instead think about how water flows through pipes and hoses. Voltage is similar to the water pressure in a pipe. The current is how fast the water is flowing through the pipe.
The voltage of a typical lightning bolt is many million times stronger than a normal household outlet. It may hurt a bit when the doorknob shocks you, but it’s nowhere near the 50,000 degree Fahrenheit temperature lightning bolts can reach.
Now back to our suit.
Mehrizi-Sani says there are two important things to keep in mind when constructing such a suit, which he couldn’t help but add one more time is impractical and just not safe.
The first is its size. It must be big.
“Say you’re small. If you can have a suit that’s 10X Large, it has enough distance between your body and the suit, than it’s good,” he says. Again, the electrostatic charge can reach across the air and get you, like static electricity. You want the suit to be far enough away from you so the lightning goes only through the suit to the ground. Not you.
But what should the suit be made from?
“Metal conducts electricity much better than your body,” says Mehrizi-Sani. “It would prefer to go through the metal to the ground, rather than your body.”
For this, we want the metal with the least resistance. Put another way, we want the suit to allow the lightning to travel through it freely. Without any resistance. A metal with low resistance is called a good conductor. If the metal is a poor conductor, the lightning will look for something else to travel through that’s perhaps a better conductor. Like you.
“Your skin is a really good insulator,” says Mehrizi-Sani. “That’s why if you have an injury you’d be more prone to be electrocuted. Once electricity gets through your skin, it gets to your blood, and your blood is basically an electrolyte and a relatively good conductor. Your main protection is your skin.”
Scary. So what types of metal are good conductors?
“Copper, it’s a good conductor but it’s very heavy,” says Mehrizi-Sani. “Aluminum, but it won’t be as good as copper. You can have gold. It’s very good! Very good conductor, very heavy, but also very expensive.”
A giant gold suit of armor. That’s way better than a rubber outfit.