High-voltage engineer Greg Leyh builds
the largest Tesla coils in the world.
By David Pescovitz
Photograph by Jonathan Sprague
GREG LEYH IS A POWER BROKER. VOLTS. a deal with the governmental owners of the property.
Watts. Joules. Amperes. He trades in them all. His Leyh first put his ideas for the Lightning Lab on
aim? Nothing short of lightning-on-demand. paper in 1996, but he’s been on a power trip since
At Maker Faire in May, Leyh premiered his twin his teens. As a science-minded high school senior
Tesla coils, two stately and elegant 10-foot towers in Arlington, Texas, he stumbled upon proto-maker
that spewed 18-foot arcs between them. Amazingly, Nikola Tesla’s writings about resonance rise, the phe-the twins are just one-twelfth-scale prototypes for nomenon that causes a street light pole to sway wildly
the pair he plans to build at his Nevada Lightning at the top from just a small shove at the bottom.
Laboratory. Those coils will fill a football field-sized “The whole notion that these physics effects are not
tract of land with 18 million volts of lightning. only knowable, but can be calculated very precisely,
For Leyh, high voltage is a way of life. His company, was almost too much to believe at first,” Leyh says.
based just south of San Francisco in the small city As a college freshman at UT Arlington doing
of Brisbane, is called Lightning On Demand. In a few work-study in the machine shop, Leyh decided to
years, LOD ( lod.org) will be reborn as the Nevada conduct his own mechanical resonance experi-Lightning Laboratory, where, if all goes as planned, ments. He built a mechanical oscillator from an old
he’ll open a world-class facility for scientists to study Camaro’s blower motor. Essentially, the machine
high-power phenomena. repeatedly lifted itself up and then dropped back to
“The higher power you go, the more new phys- the ground, at various speeds controlled by a rheo-ics you uncover,” says Leyh, who works days in the stat. Leyh attached it to various objects to determine
Power Conversion Department engineering group their resonant frequencies. His most, er, successful
at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. His field study took place on a wooden footbridge.
personality somehow fits his job. He’s quiet, very “I adjusted the dial until I found the sweet spot
friendly, a little nerdy, and always willing to explain where the bridge was bouncing a foot and a half up
technical concepts repeatedly until you understand and down,” he says. “Then I heard a very satisfying
them, or think you understand them. In that way, crack and I couldn’t find the right frequency again.”
Leyh reminds me of the best high school science Through college, Leyh devoured Tesla’s writings,
teacher, the kind who still dresses like a NASA engi- eventually building his first small Tesla coil. The coils
neer from the 1960s — short-sleeve dress shirt, also exploit resonant rise, but with electrical energy
pens in his breast pocket, plain slacks, and dress rather than mechanical. A Tesla coil steps up the
shoes. But instead of a slide rule on his belt, Leyh power from an input source by taking it through
wears a calculator watch on his wrist. several transformer and driver circuits until it reaches
If the Nevada Lightning Laboratory can collect just incredibly high voltages. That energy is then dis-
$12 to $18 million in funding, Leyh says he could charged in zaps of radio frequency (RF) energy.
generate the first arcs in little more than two years. After graduating with an electrical engineering
He’s just returned from visiting a site 40 minutes degree, Leyh landed a job working in Stanford’s
outside of Las Vegas that, based on his meticulous physics department. In 1988, a friend sent him a
surveying, GPS mapping, and Google Earth exploring, grainy, fourth-generation video of San Francisco
would be the perfect spot. Now he just has to finalize machine performance group Survival Research
40 Make: Volume 11