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Runaway Breakdown and Lightning Initiation


Runaway Breakdown in the Air and Implications for Lightning Initiation

Tech Area / Field

  • PHY-PFA/Particles, Fields and Accelerator Physics/Physics

8 Project completed

Registration date

Completion date

Senior Project Manager
Rudneva V Ya

Leading Institute
VNIIEF, Russia, N. Novgorod reg., Sarov

Supporting institutes

  • FIAN Lebedev, Russia, Moscow


  • Los-Alamos National Laboratory, USA, NM, Los-Alamos

Project summary

The objectives of the Project: (1) Development of a theory of electric breakdown governed by relativistic runaway electron avalanche (RREA) and elaboration on its basis adequate mechanism of the initiation of ordinary contracted lightning and of gigantic upward atmospheric discharges (UADs). (2) Laboratory study of RREA and ultra - high frequency (UHF) discharges governed by runaway electrons (REs), both self-sustained and initiated by electron beam. Application of results obtained to the natural atmospheric discharges. Technical approaches. (1) Using of the kinetic theory, Monte-Carlo techniques and Maxwell equations. (2) Using of 2D-system of hydrodynamic and Maxwell equations with taking into account multi-group electron kinetics, ions of both signs and excited molecules. (3) Calculations on lab experiments and UAD radiation fields. Results are planned to be compared with data of lab experiments and field observations. (4) Improvement of relativistic kinetic equation and numerical schemes to achieve better agreement with Monte-Carlo results. (5) To study experimentally the breakdown and discharges governed by REs, it is planned to utilize strong electric fields in the event of dense gas and external magnetic field at reduced pressures and UHF breakdown, both initiated by injected electron beam and self-sustained. Such approaches reducing by a few orders the RREA enhancement length enable laboratory modeling. (6) It is planned to develop conceptions of flight experiments to study UAD emissions and lightning initiation by cosmic ray showers.

Anticipated results: (1) Hydrodynamic computer model in multi-group approximation for electrons and results of calculations of UAD dynamics and its emissions in optical (Blue Jets, Red Sprites), radio and g-ranges. (2) Theory of UAD selfconsistent with evolution of thunderstorm electromagnetic field. (3) Theory of the lightning initiation by cosmic-ray showers enhanced by breakdown governed by relativistic REs. (4) New theoretical data on RREA rates. (5) Concepts of a flight experiments: (a) on the initiation of lightning discharge by cosmic- ray showers and (b) on the detection of UAD emissions. (6) Improved experimental set incorporating autonomous recorder of the absolute electron energy distribution. (7) Experimental data on RREA. (8) Experimental data on the dynamics of breakdown and discharges in the air governed by REs.

Scientific significance. (1) Nonlocal model of electrical breakdown in thunderstorm fields incorporating REs, may appear to be fruitful to solve the problem of the lightning initiation. Observed enhancement of penetrating radiation in thunderclouds over the background testify to RE generation. (2) Discharges of ordinary lightning can be followed by development of gigantic upward atmospheric discharges (UADs) from cloud tops. UADs have a diffusion form typical for lab discharges with pre-ionization and are accompanied by characteristic optical phenomena in volumes of 1000 km3. Pulses of penetrating radiation of terrestrial origin observed from satellite are believed to be associated also with UADs. Due to these reasons the adequate mechanism of UAD should incorporate a production of high-energy electrons. The adequate model, which is planned to develop, is based on the idea of relativistic runaway electron avalanche (RREA). The idea provides also a reliable foundation to develop a mechanism of the air breakdown in thunderstorm field and lightning initiation. (3) UAD is a poorly studied atmospheric phenomenon, which undoubtedly able to effect a human activity first of all in connection with the safety of flights and the health of aircraft crews and passengers. Therefore study of UAD origin is an urgent problem.

Foreign collaborators

Presently Los Alamos National Laboratory agreed to participate in the project as a foreign collaborator.

Research institutions, private firms and separate experts from USA, European Union, Japan, Norway, South Korea are invited to participate in the project as foreign collaborators. There are proposed the following kinds of collaboration: (1) participation in development of theory and conceptions of laboratory and field experiments; (2) computer calculations; (3) providing CIS participants with additional instruments and materials; (4) Exchange of information during project implementation, analyzes of results obtained; (5) joint seminars, workshops, meetings, discussions, consultations, visits; (6) joint publications. (7) consultations on Intellectual Property Rights, in case of joint inventions; (8) other types of collaboration are possible at potential collaborators discretion.


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