June 11, 2018

MIT: Use Bottled Lightning to Stop Airline Lightning Strikes

On average, every airplane in the U.S. commercial fleet will be struck by lightning more than one time a year.

This seems problematic. Engines, wing flaps, landing gear, etc., are controlled by computers and instruments that are highly susceptible to power surges. Commercial airliners also carry tens of thousands of gallons of (highly flammable) jet fuel. Yet lightning strikes actually pose very little risk to passengers or the airplanes themselves.

Airplanes are carefully designed to direct lightning currents away the plane’s most critical regions. For instance, lightning diverter strips made of highly conductive material are applied along the outer surface of the nose cone, which contains radar and other flight instruments. If lightning strikes the nose, the current will be diverted back through the highly conductive exterior skin of the aircraft where it will exit through one of the plane’s extremities, like the wing or the tail. All structural joints and fasteners are carefully designed to prevent sparking.

And despite all of this, lightning strikes still cost airline companies millions of dollars a year. An aircraft that has been hit by lightning often requires follow-up inspections and safety checks that may delay the next flight. Physical damage to the plane, which sometimes occurs, may result in planes being taken out of service.

Ironically, the use of advanced composite materials that reduce the likelihood of airplanes being hit by lightning, have also multiplied the costs associated with lightning strike repairs. So scientists are trying to figure out ways to reduce lighting strikes even further. A recent MIT study identified a novel way to do just that: an onboard system that would protect a plane by electrically charging it.

Check it out here.

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