Published May 25, 2012
University of South Carolina researchers will soon start throwing lightning bolts in a new research laboratory to test the impact on modern aircraft’s component parts.
By firing simulated bolts at the kinds of composite materials that go into airplanes, engineers in the Lightning Response Laboratory will refine understanding of how modern aircraft and other structures are affected by electrical storms.
Every commercial airplane is struck by lightning about once a year, the school said. The current in a single bolt of lightning can exceed 100,000 amps, so strikes can 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 construction material in commercial aircraft, 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 being 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. His 40 years of materials research led to 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."
The work is part of a broader research effort on advanced composite materials for aerospace applications, he said. Construction of the new Lightning Response Laboratory has begun in space leased from the South Carolina Research Authority, on Catawba Street in Columbia adjacent to the USC campus.
Prasun Majumdar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is working with Reifsnider to develop the new USC facility, which should be completed this summer.
"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.