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NSF awards Fasano $228,000 grant for lightning research

Barry McNamara
Monmouth College physics professor Christopher Fasano has been awarded a $228,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the generation of X-rays from lightning.
By studying the rays, Fasano and his students hope to learn more about the production and characteristics of lightning strikes and contribute to the growing field of atmospheric electricity and atmospheric particle acceleration.
Fasano’s research, which involves Monmouth students as well as area physics teachers and students, focuses upon naturally occurring lightning strikes in western Illinois and eastern Iowa.
“People think that we have lightning figured out,” said Fasano following a presentation by his students on their initial research at a meeting last year of the American Physical Society (APS). “But no, we don’t have it all figured out … This is like the Wild West. It’s wide open.”
Or, as Fasano worded it in his grant proposal: “Lightning – the massive dielectric breakdown of the atmosphere that occurs during thunderstorms – is a dramatic process that demands study and explanation. … Understanding lightning is considered one of the great unsolved problems of atmospheric physics.” 
Using funds from the grant, Fasano and his students will build and deploy 10 detection packages at area schools. Each package includes a lightning detector, an X-ray detector and an array of sensors that will measure parameters like pressure, temperature and electric field strength. The packages will be placed on rooftops, and measurements will be taken both during storms and clear weather. Fasano and his students have already developed a prototype detector and have been using it to take some preliminary data on campus.
“Our goal is to measure the energy spectrum of natural lightning while recording data on electric field strength and meteorological data,” said Fasano. “This approach allows us to take data for extended periods of time at many locations (throughout western Illinois and eastern Iowa). By having many detectors that run continuously, we are hoping to be able to accumulate enough data to begin to understand how particles are accelerated in the atmosphere.”
Fasano explained that the transient and unpredictable nature of lightning is a major challenge. “Since we can’t predict where lightning will strike or when it will strike, we need to be watching at as many places and for as long as we can.”  
Building and deploying the detectors comprises the first stage of the three-year project. The data collection comes next, followed by dissemination of research findings. Fasano and his students are already planning to take area students and teachers with them to a regional APS meeting at the end of the grant period.
With funding from the NSF, an independent U.S. government agency responsible for promoting science and engineering through research programs and education projects, Fasano’s three-year research program includes the participation of high school students and teachers in a substantive and deliberate way.
“This project provides us with a considerable outreach opportunity,” he explained. “Research experiences like this are sound pedagogy and will allow us to engage students in undergraduate research over several years within the arc of a coherent, continuous research project.”
The collaborative nature of the project was, according to reviewers’ comments, a key factor in the proposal being funded, said MC associate dean and grant program director Bren Tooley.
“It turns out the proposal’s broader impact statement relating to the planned involvement of high school physics teachers and students had an informative and persuasive role,” she said. “Professor Fasano has had this project in mind for a while. I am very glad that he now has the funding support to move forward.”
“This project really has large potential for future projects,” said Fasano. “While we are studying the lightning, we might also be able to discover something new about thunderstorm development. We’ll learn a lot from doing this.”
As is often the case with research at Monmouth College, several disciplines are involved.
“This project clearly has elements tied to atmospheric science, but it also requires engineering to design and build the detectors,” said Fasano. “There is a physics element with the particle detection, and there is theoretical physics as we model what happens computationally.” 
In 2011, Fasano attended the Terrestrial Gamma-ray Flash Workshop at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, where he was struck by the diversity of scientists who are curious about the lightning phenomenon.
“You could see the excitement of the people who were struggling with this problem,” said Fasano. “What are the conditions that lead to these gamma-ray flashes? We don’t know the answers. So we want to get students involved – not just our own college students, but area high school students – and have them collect data. These area high school students will be a real part of this research. The science will lead to new information and will help shape future investigation into lightning strikes.”
Fasano, who is the Martha S. Pattee Professor of Science and chairs the physics department, has been at Monmouth since 1998. He holds both a master’s degree and Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago.