Technologist Sean Davis, with 3M in Austin, works in the Electrical Markets Division testing company products and how they stand up to severe lightning and electrical current analysis. Here he is testing termination splices to pass a certain voltage impulse. Credit: Ralph Barrera / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

This week’s Digital Savant column is a bit of a departure from talk of smart phones, social media etiquette or video games. Last week, I visited one of 3M’s very large Austin sites, the one with its Innovation Center and many research labs. (The other is for manufacturing.)

While there I learned a lot about the company and got to see a lightning simulator and a very cold room. You can read all about it in the column, available on MyStatesman and in Tuesday’s print edition of the American-Statesman. Here’s an excerpt:

It takes about 30 seconds to charge up the impulse generator each time to today’s testing voltage of 300 KV, connected to an electrical termination that looks like a jutting needle attached to a gas station hose. Inside the control room, behind the grounded door and safely shielded windows, we watch. The “ding, dong!” of a doorbell sounds to warn when the moment is here. And then: “pop!” A flash, gone in just a moment. The air has been burned, or rather ionized. Flashover has occurred, creating a plasma spark. It’s a modest spectacle, really just a bright dot of light in the air, but the loud report, like the bang of a small gun, tells you all you need to know about its power.

Five times we cycle through. Buzz. Ding-dong! Pop! And a flash.

And then it’s over and the lab is safe for entry again. It’s just a large space where mankind has miraculously triumphed over lightning without death or injury.

Read the rest here.