Lighting in the sky with gemstones

Wednesday 29 February 2012

Could lightning storms in clouds made of gemstones hold a clue to the ignition of life on planets outside our solar system and on Earth?

Supported by a Starting Grant from the European Research Council of €1.5 million for five years, Dr Christiane Helling from the University of St Andrews is trying to find out.

Her LEAP project stands for Light, Electricity, Atmospheres and Planets and studies charge processes in atmospheric environments.

She explained, “Brown Dwarfs and giant gas planets have atmospheres too warm to form water-clouds, but are just right for the formation of small grains made of silicates, metal oxides, and iron.

“The composition of these grains changes with height in the atmosphere, hence the top of such extra-terrestrial clouds may well glitter yellowish with dark red or green shining through from ruby or opal grains from lower layers.

“We want to understand how thunderstorms in gemstone-clouds might affect the atmosphere such that biomolecules as the precursor for life can form.”

The ERC anniversary special publication presents Dr Helling’s LEAP / Lightning project as one of 27 projects selected from over 2500 other ERC-funded projects.

The ERC celebrates its fifth anniversary, on 29 February – 1 March 2012, in Brussels by inviting high-level figures such as the Research and Innovation EU Commissioner, research ministers, representatives from national funding agencies from the US, China South Africa, Brazil, Russia, and the Jawaharial Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in India.

Dr Helling added, “I feel very honoured that my project is amongst the top 1.3 per cent of ERC projects from all ERC funded domains (Physical Sciences and Engineering, Life Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities) that are presented to Commissioners, world-leading researchers and policy makers.

“This shows once more that our research in St Andrews carries a long way beyond Scottish borders.

“Leading the academic field and keeping ahead is also at the heart of the University’s 600th anniversary, in which I am involved with the project ‘“Other Worlds” ThinkTank and Observatory’.”

The project, ‘“Other Worlds” ThinkTank and Observatory’ (OWTO) will build upon Dr Helling’s ERC project LEAP / Lightning and aims to take the concept of comparative planetology forward.

The core vision of the OWTO aims to overcome disciplinary boundaries, both in research and education, to engage society by a “Visitors and Cutting-Edge Symposia program”, build a new University observatory and ThinkTank complex, and to actively explore cross-disciplinary links.


Note to Editors

Dr Helling is available on: 01334 461666

For further information visit:

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews.
Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227/ 0771 414 0559 or email [email protected]
Ref: (ref 28/02/12)
View the University’s latest news at

Category Research

Related topics

Share this story