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Greg Leyh: An Engineer with an Artistic Framework (Part 4: Conclusion)

Alberta Chu: So let’s catch up - what have you been up to since Electrum (completed in 1998)?

Greg Leyh: Electrum offered a unique opportunity to test the engineering and scaling laws needed for designing very large coils -- ones large enough to replicate some of the more esoteric features of natural lightning.  The construction and testing of Electrum provided invaluable experience towards developing the Lightning Foundry design.  Measurements of Electrum’s output waveforms showed how critical the control of phasing and initial polarity is towards enhancing arc formation and growth.

The Advanced Lightning Facility was the original concept with two towers. A couple of years ago we evolved the Advanced Lightning Facility into the Lightning Foundry project, based on discussions with researchers and new theories addressing relativistic avalanche phenomena in natural lightning.  Although the Lightning Foundry is more closely tailored for pursuing relativistic phenomena, it’s also been optimized to be built from ‘obtainium’ (parts that can be obtained rather than bought) so that we can begin construction without waiting for flaky funding sources that might not ever materialize. Average power for the Lightning Foundry design is lower than the original ALF, but the peak power and output voltage should be slightly higher.   With luck, the Lightning Foundry should just be able to reach the regime where relativistic effects begin, providing a first close look into the secret gain mechanisms of lightning.  Gamma-ray bursts will be the first relativistic calling card we’ll be watching for. Lightning Foundry will run on 4 megawatts, the equivalent of 2 million iphone5’s

AC: What is your most gratifying high-voltage project to date?

GL: Without a doubt the development work towards the Lightning Foundry facility has been the most satisfying. Since the project isn’t funded, we’ve avoided a tremendous amount of political, regulatory and PR overhead, allowing us to focus purely on the key physics and technical issues.  This has allowed us to advance the design effort at a wonderfully fast and efficient pace.

Pictured: Typical large scale data center (non-Google)

AC: What else are you up to these days?

GL: Recently I started a new job at Google, working on data center power distribution.  Data centers are huge, warehouse-sized computers that convert 100’s of megawatts into kitten videos.  Many data centers process more grid power than the SLAC 2-mile linear accelerator where I used to work.  A new datacenter will often reclaim abandoned aluminum smelters or factories, or any location with a strong power grid connection and a good water source. Demand for cloud computing and social networking is growing rapidly, so there’s tremendous research directed towards gaining every last bit of efficiency out of a data center and focusing even more power into them. In many ways the job is similar to power conversion work back at the SLAC accelerator, except that instead of producing a megawatt beam of relativistic particles, the output stream is megawatts of… internet.

AC: What do you consider your greatest technical achievement? 

GL: Hopefully that’s yet to come! 


Boston's Museum of Science welcomes High-voltage engineer Greg Leyh in-person on November 7th, 2012 @ 6:45 pm to present the world premiere of filmmaker Alberta Chu’s documentary “Lightning Dreams: The Electrum at Gibbs Farm.” Greg will give a presentation about the proposed Lightning Foundry project, followed by a reception in the Theater of Electricity. Buy your tickets in advance:

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