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Scientists have explained how lightning can occur even in the driest deserts. A new theory describes how neutral dust can gain an electrical life of its own.

For centuries, researchers have known that clouds of neutral particles can sometimes gain a net charge. This can cause even the driest sand to generate lightning, and sugar refineries and coal-processing plants can experience unexpected explosions. Most researchers have ascribed such events to static build-up, but Troy Shinbrot, a physicist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., was unconvinced. Under normal conditions, sand and dust don't conduct electricity, he says, so how could they generate fields strong enough to spark massive lightening bolts? "These materials are insulators under very dry conditions, so where are the charges coming from?" he asks.

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