Lightning Response Lab

Lightning Response Lab to advance aviation research at USC

Rather than catching lightning in a bottle, University of South Carolina researchers will soon start throwing lightning bolts in a new research laboratory.

By firing simulated bolts at the kinds of composite materials used in airplanes, engineers in the Lightning Response Laboratory will refine their understanding of how modern aircraft and other structures are affected by electrical storms.

The typical commercial airplane is struck by lightning about once a year. The current in a single bolt of lightning can exceed 100,000 amps — enough energy to cause structural damage from heat, magnetic effects, acoustic shock and the ignition of fuel tank vapors.

But the effect of lightning on metal, a traditional aircraft material, is not the same as that on composites, which are increasingly used in the skin of commercial aircraft.

Composite materials contain more than one component, such as the "plastic" of a polymer reinforced by carbon, Kevlar or glass fibers to make strong structures, such as lightweight bicycle frames, sports equipment and aircraft. Researchers have engineered composites with unique properties, such as high strength-to-weight ratios, that are invaluable in aviation applications, among many others.

Ken Reifsnider, an endowed SmartState chair at USC, is one of the world's foremost experts on composite materials. The quality of his 40 years of materials research is reflected in his election to the National Academy of Engineering in 2004, and he serves on the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board.

"Sufficient protection is already in place for safety," Reifsnider said. "We are trying to develop better and cheaper alternative materials for aircraft and other applications.

"This work is part of a broader research effort on advanced composite materials for aerospace applications," he said, adding that construction of the new Lightning Response Laboratory has begun in space leased from the South Carolina Research Authority adjacent to the USC campus.

Prasun Majumdar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who has spent more than a decade in composite materials research, is working with Reifsnider to develop the new USC facility, which should be completed in summer 2012.

"To the best of our knowledge, this will be only the second lightning strike facility among all the universities in the U.S.," Reifsnider said. Most such facilities are located in industrial or federal research labs.