Tower and its Siberian twin use Marx generators to achieve incredible science fiction worthy feats of Soviet engineering

Anyone who's played the Command & Conquer game series will instantly recognize the towering Tesla Coil weapon.  A Russian state-funded media outlet this week released real footage of a real life facility that rivals such stuff of science fiction.  This latest tour adds yet another tantalizing glimpse at one of the greatest secrets of the Cold War and one of greatest achievements of Soviet engineering.  Forget making it rain -- in Soviet Russia engineers literally "made it lightning."

I. Lightning in a Bottle

The real life Russian lightning tower is arguably as impressive as anything game designers or fiction authors have cooked up.  At the height of the Cold War, Soviet Russia constructed an outlandish lightning machine based on Marx generators, a relative of the beloved Tesla coil.  Located 40 km northwest of the capitol city of Moscow, Russia in the small town of Istra the facility is basically in the middle of nowhere -- an alien structure sprouting up in the midst of a quiet forest.

The HVRC site is located in the middle of a forest northwest of Moscow. [Image Source: Google Maps]

Situated near the New Jerusalem Monastery, the facility has attracted a growing level of attraction over the past decade.  The tower is today owned and operated by the Russian Electrical Engineering Institute.  But before that it was a Soviet state secret.


For more than a decade the facility operated in silence from within the iron curtain.  Its artificial lightning capabilities were the stuff of hushed rumors.  Today the facility is secret no more.  Since the fall of the USSR in 1991, the facility has slowly entered the public eye, even though as recently as this year it's been used for weapons research.

HVRC towers

HVRC winter

Test platforms at the HVRC are seen here in the biting chill of the Russian winter.
[Image Source: Da-CK9 (top); Daniel Mordoff (bottom)]

Today we know that the facility -- dubbed the High Voltage Research Center (HVRC) -- was designed to produce the world's most powerful bolts of lightning, which were used for testing the storm resistance of various military craft.

HVRC inside
The HVRC is a monstrous feat of Soviet engineering. [Image Source:]

Well-maintained, the structure, still serves that purpose, although it's also opened its doors to private-sector testing.  Most recently it was used to test the lightning strike resistance of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 (introduced in 2011).

HVRC tower
[Image Source:]

HVRC platform
In recent years the facility has seen limited commercial use. [Image Source: mtlzc2010/blog163]

In recent years hikers and locals have begin to share hints of the facility's wild capabilities on the internet.

But it's only been in the last year that those capabilities have gotten official confirmation from Russian state sources.

II. Of Fusion and Voltage Pulsation

The apparatus responsible for the artificial lightning is called a Marx Generator.  It might be tempting to suspect Russia named the generator after Karl Marx, but it turns out that's not the case.  Rather the generator was the 1924 invention of German electrical engineer Erwin Otto Marx.

The concept of the Marx generator is beautifully simple -- you charge a number of large capacitors in parallel, then connect them in series to essentially combine the voltages to transform the output of a lower voltage DC source into a high voltage pulse.  The construct has a maximum theoretical voltage of the operating voltage of each stage times the number of stages (n*V), although the real world output is, of course, lower.

Marx generator
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Russia by no means has a monopoly on these supergenerators.  Back home in the U.S. An $80M USD Marx generator consisting of 36 banks of 1.3 uF 100 kV capacitors drives the production of x-rays at New Mexico's Sandia National Labs (SNL) [source].  

Sandia Z Machine
Sandia Nat'l Labs' "Z Machine" channels 3.6 MV to produce superpowered x-rays. [Image Source: SNL]

Sandia Z Machine
Periodic upgrades over the years have increased the American-built device's maximum voltage.
[Image Source: SNL]

This generator is known as the "Z Machine".  The Z Machine packs a peak theoretical capacitance of 36 nF (nanofarad) in series mode and a peak theoretical voltage of 3.6 MV.

Z-Machine -- Sandia

Z machine

Z Machine

Diagrams show the inner workings of the device, including its Marx generators.  The machine looks to drive inertial confined fusion. [Image Source: SNL]

Built in the 1980s, it is capable of producing up transforming an 80 terawatts (trillions of watts) pulse of power lasting roughly 1 µs.  The end result directs x-rays with a power of 290 TW and energy of 1.9 MJ onto a tiny hollow gold vessel, filled with fusion fuel.  Researchers hope that someday the Z Machine will drive a unique kind of fusion.

Sandia Z Machine
X-rays are focused onto a gold vessel known as a "hohlraum". [Image Source: SNL]

SNL -- sort of the HVRC's American counterpart -- also houses the ATLAS-I (Air Force Weapons Lab Transmission-Line Aircraft Simulator).  The ATLAS-I, better known as "the Trestle" is a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) testing platform.  The Trestle is about as tall as HVRC, measuring in at roughly twelve stories (38 m (125 ft)) high.

The Trestle
Shocking: a Boeing Comp. (BA) B-52 is tested on "The Trestle" back in 1981.
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Composed of a somewhat low tech yet remarkable solution -- Douglas Fir and Southern Yellow Pine boards glued and laminated and affixed together with fiberglass bolts to form the massive nail-free structure.  The building has good EMP transparency (so as not to skew tests), high weather restance (via the pine), and high tensile strength (from the fir).

Sandia -- the Trestle
[Image Source: Google Images]

Currently mothballed since shutting down in 1991, the $60M SUD structure in its heyday was capable of putting off pulses of 10 MV (at 200 GW).

III. Siberia's Snow Covered Monster Marx Tower

While the U.S. may have the most futurist and utilitarian use for the Marx Generator, it is the Soviet Russians who hold the grip on the generator's most eye-catching use -- massive bolts of artificial lightning.

SIBNIIE lightning

The Siberia-based SIBNIIE is Russia's second-most-powerful known artificial lightning generator.

In the icy town of Novosibirsk, Siberia lies the Siberian Power Research Institute of Power Engineering (SIBNIIE).


SIBNIIE is located in eastern Russia. [Image Source: Ralphmirebs]

SIBIIE tower
The tower is roughly nine stores tall. [Image Source: SynthStuff]

SIBNIIE's key asset is a towering ~28 m (~92 ft.) tall Marx generator.  The nearly nine story generator consists of 28 stages.

SIBIIE tower

SIBIIE tower
The SIBIIE tower has 28 interior stages. [Image Source: Baidu (top); unknown (bottom)]

Leaks from local enthusiasts reveal the massive machine is driven by 896 capacitors 175 nF @ 125 kV.  A stage of the tower is equipped with eight series connect sets of four capacitors in parallel which operate at 1.400 µF at 500 kV.  The stress on the capacitors creates a high burnout rate so the facility in recent years has been reduced to operating at a more pedestrian 250 kV.

SIBNIIE components
Glass insulators (left) and capacitors w/ spark gaps (copper, right) help make up Russia's smaller lightning tower. [Image Source: SynthStuff]

Overall the facility has an erect capacitance of 50 nF and a peak discharge voltage of 14 MV -- or 7 MV at current reduced operating voltages.  Compared to the Z Machine, one major difference is duration.  





SIBNIIE tower innards

SIBNIIE is a massive feat of engineering. [Image Source: mtlzc2010/blog163]

To create massive open air sparks -- artificial lightning in layman's terms -- the tower must discharge for more than a hundred times as long as the Z Machine -- 150 µs in total.

(Note: Slideshow appears to have some pictures of HVRC erroneously mixed in.)

At current operating capacity it can produce 5 MV shots w/ 1.225 MJ of power.  That's only slightly less power than the Z Machine.

The end product of SIBNIIE is a massive jolt of artificial lighting that can measure up to ~70m (230 ft.).  Unruly jolts have been known to strike nearby lamposts on occasion.

IV. Big Brother is Shocking You

The HVRC facility is a sibling of sorts -- perhaps a big brother -- to Siberia's SIBNIIE tower site.  The size gap is apparent.  The tower used at the HVRC site juts 39.3 m (128.9 ft) in the air -- nearly one and a half times the size of its Siberian brethren.

HVRC tower
The HVRC's tower is the most powerful artificial lightning generator in the world stretching nearly twelve stories. [Image Source:]

The massive roughly twelve-story multi-stage Marx generator was commissioned in the 1980s by Germany's Siemens AG (ETR:SIE) for defense testing.  Built by East Germany's now-defunct firm TuR (now known as Therapie Technik) the internal workings of the facility remain largely unknown.


HVRC at night
The Marx generator tower is seen during spark generation.
[Image Source: (top); unknown (bottom)]

What is known is that the facility has an incredible 150 nF of cumulative standing capacitance at a maximum theoretical voltage of 9 MV.  Each stage consists of a 2.25 µF 600 kV capacitor bank.  The stages are guarded by voltage grading rings which spread voltage discharges along the tower out evenly, protect the valuable capacitors.

HVRC discharge
A major spark strike blasts forth. [Image Source: RT]

In practice the tower is roughly a fifth more powerful than SIBNIIE, thanks to its higher capacitance.  It's allowed to fire 1.3 MJ blasts at 6 MV -- enough electricity to create a ~150 m (~492 ft) long spark.  That's believed to be the record for largest artificially created lightning bolt in the world.  Blasts consume roughly power 8.7 TW of power and are sustained for 150 µs.

A small spark is seen at the test site. [Image Source:]

Feeding the lightning machine is a tricky task.  The maximum feasible transmission voltage for AC power is around 1.2 MV.  Higher than that and conductive plasma channels known as streamers will be generated, damaging the line.

HVRC tesla coils
What appears to be a series of Tesla coils stand on the HVRC grounds. [Image Source:]

The resulting discharge is capable of putting out a 150 m (492.1 ft.) bolt of artificial lightning (also known as an "open air spark").

HVRC discharge
A grainy, undated photo shows a spark flying from the central tower.
[Image Source: Teslamania/]

That is believed to be the largest manmade lightning bolt ever on record.

V. Drone Flyover Shows Remarkable Machine in Glorious Detail

Today the facility is still in relatively good shape.  The expense of its use in power alone (let alone replacing damaged parts) is so high that it is rarely called upon, but it has seen seen use in the last decade.

Today the facility is maintained by a skeleton staff of government-funded engineers.  In the absence of regular testing Russian hikers at times wander through its monolithic series of structures, occasionally even catching charge from the massive generator.  


HVRC -- summer
A hiker tours the site. [Image Source: (top); (bottom)]

But such intrusion on the sleeping giant's territory are not without risk. Vladimir Sysoev, an engineer at the facility said to state-funded television network RT (Russia Today) after seeing one picture of a hiker with sparks discharging from their fingertips:

God only knows how this guy remained alive and wasn’t struck by a discharge.

HVRC -- charged
An unidentified Russian hiker catches a dangerous buzz. [Image Source:]

Testing requires a whole set of specialized structures to complement the tower generator.  Across the way from the tower are a forest of manmade metal "trees".  

HVRC test platforms
The tower is seen in this fisheye view from the test platform. [Image Source: Saoirse]

These are insulated testing platforms complete with sensors to carefully monitor the results of lightning exposure.

HVRC flyover

The Russian government remains somewhat tight-lipped about the world's most powerful artificial lightning generator.  It only has recently allow RT to highlight the unusual site and give a vague overview of its capabilities.

HVRC test platforms

HVRC test platforms
Insulated test platforms provide a controlled testing environment for synthetic lightning strikes.
[Image Source:]

While the facts are a bit sketchy at times (notably a recent post appeared to confuse the tower's MV capability with MW, creating a bit of confusion), the images from RT of the facility are pure eye-candy.  The latest goodie from the ruling party media mouthpiece is a drone flyover which shows the facility in unprecedented detail from the air.

HVRC test tower

[Image Source: (top); (bottom)]

According to RT's recent reports, while the facility is not officially a weapon and would be an impractical one at best, it is dangerous enough to be considered a quasi-weapon.  There have been reports of it setting nearby trees on fire.  (It's located in the middle of a forest.)

VI. From Power to Putin

An interesting side note is the facility's failed side project, the "Allure" electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons testing facility.  The facility is housed inside a building topped in a massive ovular dome which measures 118.4 x 236.5 m (388.5 x 775.9 ft).

HVRC Allure roof
The egg-shaped EMP test facility allure suffered a roof collapse in winter of 1985. [Image Source: Metro-Rumata]

Looking something like an egg, the facility was on its way to testing how Russia's arsenal would fare against EMP strikes but embarassingly succumbed to the weight of snow on its roof "imploding" (in the words of RT) on Jan. 1985.

HVRC -- Allure
Test equipment stands as a stubborn memory of Allure. [Image Source: Deletant]

RT reports:

The high-ranking Soviet Communist Party official in Moscow supervising the construction of the Istra dome was fired from his job and sent to a remote posting as punishment.  He was replaced with fellow Communist apparatchik Boris Yeltsin, who was invited to work [at the facility near] Moscow.

(Ed. - Perhaps the demoted official was transferred to SIBNIIE?)

Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin (left, hand up) parlayed his experience at the HVRC into the Russian Presidency. [Image Source: AFP/Getty Images]

After winning the 1991 election, Yeltsin was one of the world's most powerful men.
[Image Source: AFP/Getty Images]

Six years later in 1991, Boris Yeltsin would become the first democratically elected president of Russia.  He would serve at that post until 1999 when he resigned amid controversy.  Yeltsin would pass away eight years later, in 2007.

The path to Putin's post-Soviet assent to power began at the HVRC facility. [Image Source: AFP]

Meanwhile, his resignation would make way for his successor -- then-prime minister Vladimir Putin.  Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, is perhaps the most iconic Russian politician -- for better or worse- - of the post-Soviet era.  Today he once again holds this post after allowing his hand-groomed ally Dmitry Medvedev to briefly serve as president from 2008-2012.  You could say that Yeltsin -- once the HVRC's head lightning tamer -- captured political lightning in a bottle, a trait that he would pass on to his bold, if mercurial successor.

Further Reading:

Sources: RT on YouTube, via Gizmodo, RT [previous coverage]

"Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine." -- Bill Gates

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