Kota Bharu car explosion: Can lightning blow up a car?

It was widely shared on social media yesterday that a car in Kota Bharu had exploded after it was struck by lightning. If you’ve seen the photos and videos, the location looks like a scene of a bomb blast.

We all know that getting hit by lightning can be deadly but can it actually cause a car to explode? Here’s what you need to know.

What happens if a car gets struck by lightning?

More than a decade ago, the folks at Top Gear (who have moved on to The Grand Tour) had conducted an experiment to find out what happens if a car is struck by lightning. To simulate a lightning strike, they have zapped a VW Golf with 800,000 volts at a Siemens high voltage lab in Berlin. To make it interesting, they conducted the test with Richard Hammond inside the vehicle.

Obviously, Richard is still alive and he wasn’t electrocuted. When the car gets hit with high voltage, there were some error messages appearing on the car’s instrument cluster. The VW Golf survived and Richard could still drive it away without any issues.

What happened is that the body of the car acts as a Faraday cage, which was named by Michael Faraday. Essentially, the metal exterior acts as a conductive cage that protects its internals from external electric fields or electromagnetic radiation. In short, if your vehicle gets hit by lightning, the occupants are well protected.

Lightning strikes are common for airplanes

In fact, it is common for airplanes to get hit by lightning when it flies through areas with bad weather. When a plane that’s mostly made with metal gets hit by lightning, the energy will continue to flow to the ground.

However, most modern aircrafts such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner are now using more composite materials which isn’t a good conductor. To provide protection against lightning strikes, aircraft manufacturers have to add an extra layer of metal mesh which acts as a Faraday cage.

YouTuber Captain Joe had previously released a video to answer questions about airplanes getting hit by lightning. To demonstrate how the Faraday Cage works, he was locked up in an actual metal cage that was subjected to 220,000 volts of electricity. When the cage gets hit with high voltage, he could still touch the metal parts of the cage to demonstrate that it is completely safe on the inside.

However, he shared that airlines would still need to inspect the planes after a lightning strike incident. In most cases, there would be visible burn marks or sometimes holes for the entry and exit points of the strike.

So what caused the explosion in Kota Bharu?

According to Kelantan police chief Datuk Shafien Mamat, initial investigations by the fire and rescue team have found that the vehicle was carrying fireworks. A man in his 50s has died and the impact of the explosion has also caused his car to split into two. The explosion had also damaged other vehicles and several other victims including a policeman were also injured.

While investigations are ongoing, we believe it is unlikely that the unfortunate incident was caused by lightning as the exterior of the car acts as a Faraday Cage. 


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Alexander Wong