Chemistry of Lightning

chemistry of lightning

Chemistry Connections

Episode #25  

Welcome to Chemistry Connections, my name is Christopher Sawicki, and I am your host for episode #25. Today I will be discussing the chemistry of lightning.

Segment 1: Introduction to lightning

  • Lighting, how lightning is produced and why
  • Lighting gives of a smell and color
  • Ionization: transfer of electrons to form an ion or from an ion
  • Intramolecular forces: attractions between atoms in a molecule
  • Intermolecular forces: attractions between entire molecules

Segment 2: The Chemistry Behind lightning


  • Water and ice move around in the cloud, ice has a negative charge
  • Updrafts and downdrafts in storms cause water molecules to collide which causes electrons to be separated from the molecules and move towards the bottom of the cloud
  • Warm updrafts sweep positively charged molecules to the top of the cloud
  • Updraft: current of air moving up
  • Positive ions move towards the top of the cloud and creates an electric field
  • Electrons are attracted to positive charged ions on the ground
  • Can contain billions to trillions of electrons
  • 1 billion volts of electricity
  • Up to 5 billion Joules of energy
  • Electrons are attracted to positive charged ions because they want to neutralize themselves.
  • Protons move up and meet the electrons as they move down
  • As electrons move down through during lightning, they crash into more molecules in the air, creating more ions
  • This is why metals attract lightning because it has a sea of electrons and many positive charged ions.


  • The smell of thunderstorms is the result of ozone in the air
  • As lightning travels down, it splits O2 molecules creating 2 oxygen atoms
  • These oxygen atoms then bond with other O2 molecules creating ozone, O3


  • Creates a blue-violet color highlighting the lightning bolt
  • Electrons form lightning ionize O2 and N2 molecules 
  • These molecules become excited and take on a different color when in this state


  • The electrons in lightning carry heat. 
  • Lightning can be up to 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Which is 6 times hotter than the sun
  • Intramolecular forces
  • Air is a poor conductor electricity
  • Conductor means it it is easy for electrons to pass through
  • Not ionic or metallic, covalent bonds make electrons not as attracted and easily given or pulled off
  • Because air is a poor conductor of electricity, there is a greater resistance to the electrons moving through the air, which creates heat, heating up the molecules are the lightning

Segment 3: Personal Connections

  • Lightning fascinates me because clouds form seemingly out of nothing, evaporated water and produce lighting bolts with billions of electrons
  • Enough electricity and energy to kill people
  • 2000 people die a year due to lightning
  • Always thought lightning was cool and wanted to know what cause lightning to occur

Thank you for listening to this episode of Chemistry Connections. For more student-ran podcasts and digital content, make sure that you visit


Music Credits

Warm Nights by @LakeyInspired

Lightning is more than just bright light and loud sound - learn about some of the chemistry going on with your host Chris.

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