Is Lightning Static Electricity: Detailed Insights

Nature displays electrostatics in a most tremendous way through lightning. In this article, we ponder, ‘Is lightning static electricity?’

Lightning is a perfect example of static electricity, i.e., charges are static. The static discharge between two clouds or between cloud and ground that are oppositely charged is what happens during lightning. Static charges build up when there is turbulence in storm clouds, resulting in huge electric spark.

The electrostatic aspect of lightning is described in detail below.

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Is lightning current electricity?

Current electricity implies that there is a steady flow of charge (electrons) through a conductor as opposed to static electricity where charges are static.

Lightning is an example of static electricity and not current electricity. In static electricity, there is a build-up of opposite charges and discharge occurs across the insulator (like air, glass, etc) due to the strong attraction between them. In contrast, electric current flow or electron flow in current electricity happens only through the conducting material. Any type of insulator gaps restricts the flow of charged particles. 

Lightning discharge occurs between two oppositely charged clouds or between a cloud and ground. It is obvious that air acts as an insulator in between during discharge. This confirms that lightning is not an example of current electricity.

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How is lightning static electricity?

When a thundercloud is formed, with ice crystals and water droplets, collisions between these particles generate charge buildup. The accumulation of charge is in such a way that the lighter positive charges build up at the topmost region of the clouds and the negative charges being heavy stay at the bottom portion of the clouds. 

When this charge buildup becomes strong enough, electric field due these charges ionizes the air and discharges. The static discharge might be between two oppositely charged clouds or from cloud to ground. Since the air (inspite of being an insulator) gets ionized, the discharge may strike any nearest object like trees, tall buildings, human beings or animals, etc. Thus, lightning is static electricity.

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Why is lightning static electricity?

Whenever there is an accumulation of opposite charges separated by an insulator, it is termed static electricity. The insulator gap can be air, glass, plastic, etc. When the opposite charges become strong enough a discharge takes place through the insulator gap. Charge discharge through an air gap may result in visible shock.

During lightning, there is tremendous accumulation of charges in the clouds that the nearby air gets ionized. The discharge due to such a strong charge buildup results in high voltage electric spark which is extremely dangerous if it strikes living organisms. Often times the discharge occurs within or between clouds that are oppositely charged. But sometimes the ground gets positively charged and the negative charge of clouds results in discharge through the air. 

There is no steady charge flow anywhere during a lightning but only discharge through an insulator and hence, lightning is static electricity.

Does static electricity cause lightning?

When a storm cloud is accumulated with charges, i.e., static electricity, lightning occurs. During thunder or rainstorm, water droplets or water vapor in certain clouds freezes to form ice crystals. When these ice crystals collide against each other, there is static buildup of charges due to friction. It is in a similar manner as charges accumulate in a balloon when rubbed with hair or clothes.

These charge accumulation occurs in such a way that positive charges move to the topmost region of the clouds as they are light and the negative charges move to the bottom part of the clouds being heavy. When the charge separation become strong enough such that the electric potential difference between them becomes very powerful, there will be static discharge.

The air surrounding the clouds gets ionized despite being an insulator. The negatively charged region of the cloud have an affinity for anything positive. If the ground is positive discharge takes place between cloud and the ground. Sometimes it happens between two clouds, or between a cloud and any object on the ground.

Spark during lightning
Image Credits: Pixabay

Static electricity has the ability to generate sparks that in certain situations, extreme care should be taken to avoid explosions. The tiny spark can generate fires when it comes into contact with flammable substances. For example, refueling tankers or aircrafts are extremely dangerous situations. The fuel passing through the hose of the vehicle can generate sparks which might ignite the fuel and cause explosions. To prevent this the hoses of the vehicle is grounded.

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