Unlike conventional lightning, ball lightning is considered to be very rare, with most people hardly likely to witness such a phenomenon in their lifetimes. As such, scientists have long been baffled by these unlikely sightings. And while science doesn’t appear to be any closer to fully explaining the phenomenon, a team of physicists believes that they were able to stumble upon a way to simulate ball lightning on a smaller scale, while observing a new quantum particle that was predicted in theory more than four decades ago.
Using a bare-bones quantum gas made up of rubidium atoms and cooled down to near zero temperatures, the multinational team from Amherst College in Massachusetts and Aalto University in Finland created a three-dimensional quantum particle called a Shankar skyrmion, marking the first time the particle was created in a quantum gas, as noted by Phys.org. The researchers, who published their findings earlier this week in the journal Science Advances, were able to create “knots” from the spins of the atoms, whose features are very similar to those of ball lightning. This could be the reason why this form of lightning persists for much longer than traditional lightning does.
“It is remarkable that we could create the synthetic electromagnetic knot, that is, quantum ball lightning, essentially with just two counter-circulating electric currents,” said study author Dr. Mikko Mottonen, from Aalto University.
“Thus, it may be possible that a natural ball lightning could arise in a normal lightning strike.”
A report from Gizmodo explained the methodologies Mottonen and his colleagues used in creating the Shankar skyrmion, starting with the “innate” spin present in each particle. The physicists then took an external magnetic field and applied it to the Bose-Einstein condensate, which is a system of atoms created when quantum gas is cooled down to extremely low temperatures. This allowed them to manipulate the spins of the rubidium atoms in such a way that they all faced the same direction along a ball’s surface but tangled with each other once inside the ball.
“What makes this a skyrmion rather than a quantum knot is that not only does the spin twist, but the quantum phase of the condensate winds repeatedly,” clarified Amherst College researcher and study lead author David Hall.
The Shankar skyrmion, as Gizmodo further explained, can come in different configurations, provided two basic rules are met — all the magnetic field lines have to be circular and linked once with the other lines, and circular paths that spin in the same direction inside the skyrmion will always cause an atom to make two twisting motions.
Speaking to Gizmodo, National Institute for Standards and Technology postdoctoral researcher Azure Hansen, who was not involved in the study, opined that further research could suggest skyrmions could have other, more important applications beyond the simulation of ball lightning, such as those related to the field of quantum computing. Likewise, study author Mottonen said that the new research could be key in the development of more stable fusion reactors than the ones currently in existence, though it’s not sure if his team’s methodologies could also allow them to create actual, and not just simulated ball lightning.