Electrical engineer Greg Leyh is no stranger to high voltage. He invites it, measures it, and controls it. Back in 2007, Leyh brought two 10-foot Tesla coil towers to one of the first Maker Faires in the Bay Area, and he was featured in Make: Volume 11. That was certainly nowhere near his first foray into building coils. You could safely say he’s been a lifelong enthusiast and researcher of high voltage and nature’s incarnation: lightning. Notably, he’s previously built two coils that were the largest in the world at the time they were built. One was a 40,000-watt coil that could throw 25-foot arcs, built in collaboration with Survival Research Labs, using reclaimed materials. The other was a 130,000-watt coil commissioned by artist Eric Orr, which stood four stories tall and was capable of throwing 50-foot discharges.
Leyh’s latest undertaking is building a setup that explores what makes lightning possible (because, as hard as it may be to believe, we don’t exactly know). You see, classic theory posits that electric fields in storm clouds are far too weak to trigger electrical discharges. So what’s Mother Nature’s trick? While there are a number of intriguing theories, lightning’s elusive (and dangerous) nature make them difficult to test. To trigger the critical first steps of lightning, Leyh aims to eventually build the ideal setup: two 120-foot towers spaced roughly 300 feet apart, which can produce a similar electrical field. But for starters, for the past five years, he’s been working on a 1/3 scale, 40-foot-tall tower as a proof of concept.
Unfortunately, the workshop he’s had for the past 8 years at famed East Bay industrial workspace American Steel is getting yanked out from under him, just as he’s near completion on his tower. The building just got bought out by investors from New York, and his scientific research apparently doesn’t fit their boutique vision for the space. Leyh’s solution? Go mobile. We spoke with him to learn more.
What makes lightning so fascinating to you?
The study of megascale electrical physics is an active hobby of mine. It’s endlessly fascinating and surprisingly unexplored. In fact, conventional electrical theory says that lightning shouldn’t happen at all! It’s hard to believe that in the 21st century, we still don’t know how storm clouds can produce lightning.
When did you become interested in researching lightning?
I’ve always been fascinated by lightning. Growing up in Texas, I’d often climb up on the roof to watch the lightning storms approach from the south. However, in the late 90s, when researchers started looking for gamma rays in storm clouds, I started thinking seriously about more direct ways to crack the mysteries of lightning.
When did you build your first Tesla coil?
In my first year of college. I’d actually studied Tesla’s misdeeds with mechanical resonators first and built a mechanical resonator for a small footbridge, before working with his resonant coils.
What reactions did you receive when you displayed your 10-foot towers at Maker Faire Bay Area back in 2007?
A lot of curiosity — for the twin towers concept but also for the wirelessly powered vehicle we brought, which ran purely off the ambient electric fields surrounding the coils, as per Tesla’s “wireless telegraphy” concept.
What was the biggest lesson learned from the coils you built with SRL?
That it’s possible to build cutting edge technology from salvaged and donated materials. There’s a lot of great cutting edge technology that ends up in the dumpsters of Silicon Valley!
What did you learn from the coil you built for kinetic artist Eric Orr?
The most unexpected thing I learned came from being able to actually stand inside the high voltage terminal (it was 7 feet in diameter!) and measure the output arcs while it was on. It turns out that the arc discharges don’t grow smoothly, but rather in small stepped leaders, very much like a micro version of lightning stepped leaders racing down from a storm cloud. I have a video teaser of the project if you want to see.
How did the experience of working out of American Steel, surrounded by other artists and researchers, affect your research?
There were many great collisions and collaborations during the American Steel years. I’d ran into this big imposing fellow with a mohawk, the kind of guy that I’d normally give a wide berth to. But then I discovered that he was an accomplished welder and fabricator, and he ended up building much of the critical structure for the new 40-foot tower! Alex Woodward still works with me regularly, even after American Steel disbanded.
When did you learn about New York investors buying American Steel? How did that affect the community?
In October of 2016, we learned about the impending sale. Folks were initially hopeful about one buyer, as this buyer stated they wanted to “preserve the vibrant artistic community” there. So yeah, people worked hard to meet the new requirements of the prospective buyers for fire safety, etc. However, once they sealed the deal, they simply kicked out many of the flagship artists there, including Karen Cusolito, and made it impossible for many others to work, so they eventually left.
I was kicked out, with no discussion about options for staying. I simply “wasn’t a good fit.” One of the new investors eyeing my high-voltage lab area asked, “Will this affect my DNA?” That’s when I knew I had a problem! Its their building to do with as they wish of course; but it was a bit disingenuous to curry favor with the seller and the City Council by stating they wanted to preserve the artistic community there.
What inspired you to start LOD (Lightning on Demand)?
The discovery that electricity displays unusual abilities at the megascale — abilities that can’t be reproduced at normal laboratory scales. LOD asks the question, “Do we have the technology to reproduce these amazing megascale electrical effects and discover how they work?” I started LOD in the beforetime, when three-letter URLs were free for the taking.
What sorts of things can lightning research teach us?
If we can learn the trick that storm clouds use to make huge electric arcs with relatively little electric field, we could, for instance, design practical megascale power transmission systems that could link the world’s power grids together, allowing wind and solar energy to be cost competitive by selling directly to where it’s dark or calm.
Why did you decide to make your workshop mobile?
The housing crisis in the Bay Area has driven developers to convert once-unthinkable parcels, like American Steel, into housing. A few years ago, there were still options for heavy industrial space, but American Steel was one of the last. For the 40-foot coil project to continue, we need a lab space that can survive the rapidly gentrifying industrial landscape. A mobile lab does this perfectly, allowing the coil system to pull in to any suitable open area, perform experiments, then roll out again — all without needing a fixed lab building.
What types of tools will the workshop contain? Can you give us a rundown of the layout and specs?
The trailer will contain the fully telescoped 40-foot tower, all of the drive electronics, the top electrode, measurement gear, and all the supporting props and equipment needed to set up the tower and repair things that break. There’s also a collapsible rail system, with two mini-cranes that help install the top electrode onto the tower. We’ll also have various setups for the “experiment du jour.” We now have all the equipment ready, and the 40-foot tower is 95% complete. All we need now is the trailer! To that end, we’re holding a fundraiser, with some interesting perks. If you’d like to help bring the world’s largest Tesla tower to life, consider chipping in. And even if you can’t do that, you can always spread the word!