During handling, powdered sulfur tends to acquire a slight negative charge, while red lead tends to acquire a slight positive charge. The negatively electrified sulfur is attracted to the positively electrified areas of the plate, while the positively electrified red lead is attracted to the negatively electrified areas. In addition to the distribution of colors thereby produced, there is also a marked difference in the form of the figure, according to the polarity of the electrical charge that was applied to the plate. If the charge areas were positive, a widely extending patch is seen on the plate, consisting of a dense nucleus, from which branches radiate in all directions. Negatively charged areas are considerably smaller and have a sharp circular or fan-like boundary entirely devoid of branches.
If the plate receives a mixture of positive and negative charges as, for example, from an induction coil, a mixed figure results, consisting of a large red central nucleus, corresponding to the negative charge, surrounded by yellow rays, corresponding to the positive charge. The difference between positive and negative figures seems to depend on the presence of air; for the difference tends to disappear when the experiment is conducted in vacuo. Riess explains it by the negative electrification of the plate caused by the friction of the water vapour, etc., driven along the surface by the explosion which accompanies the disruptive discharge at the point. This electrification would favor the spread of a positive, but hinder that of a negative discharge. Lichtenberg figures are fully described in his memoir Super nova methodo motum ac naturam fluidi electrici investigandi (Göttinger Novi Commentarii, Göttingen, 1777). It is now known that charges are transferred to the insulator's surface through small spark discharges that occur along the boundary between the gas and insulator surface. Once transferred to the insulator, excess charges become temporarily stranded. The shapes of the resulting charge distributions reflect the shape of the spark discharges which, in turn, depend on the HV polarity and pressure of the gas. Using a higher applied voltage will generate larger diameter and more branched figures.
Another type of 2D Lichtenberg Figure can be created when an insulating surface becomes contaminated with semiconducting material. When a high voltage is applied across the surface, leakage currents may cause localized heating and progressive degradation and charring of the underlying material. Over time, branching, tree-like carbonized patterns are formed upon the surface of the insulator called electrical trees. These may ultimately bridge the insulating space, leading to catastrophic failure of the insulating material.
Modern Lichtenberg Figures can also be created within solid insulating materials, such as acrylic (polymethyl methacrylate or PMMA) or glass by injecting them with a beam of high speed electrons from a linear electron beam accelerator (or Linac, a type of particle accelerator). Inside the Linac, electrons are focused and accelerated to form a beam of high speed particles. Electrons emerging from the accelerator have energies up to 25MeV and are moving an appreciable fraction (95 - 99+ percent) of the speed of light (relativistic velocities). If the electron beam is aimed towards an acrylic specimen, the electrons easily penetrate the surface of the acrylic, rapidly slowing down as they collide with molecules inside the plastic, finally coming to rest deep inside the specimen. Since acrylic is an excellent electrical insulator, these electrons become temporarily trapped within the specimen, forming a plane of excess negative charge. Under continued irradiation, the amount of trapped charge builds, until the effective voltage inside the specimen reaches millions of volts. Once the electrical stress exceeds the dielectric strength of the plastic, some portions suddenly become conductive in a process called dielectric breakdown. Dielectric breakdown can be manually initiated by piercing the acrylic specimen with a grounded metal point.
During breakdown, branching tree or fern-like conductive channels rapidly form and propagate through the plastic, allowing the trapped charge to suddenly rush out in a miniature lightning-like flash and bang. Breakdown of a charged specimen may also be manually triggered by poking the plastic with a pointed conductive object to create a point of excessive voltage stress. During the discharge, the powerful electrical sparks leave thousands of branching chains of fractures behind - creating a permanent Lichtenberg figure inside the specimen. Although the internal charge within the specimen is negative, the actual discharge is initiated from the positively charged exterior surfaces of the specimen, so that the resulting discharge actually creates a positive Lichtenberg figure. These rare and beautiful objects are sometimes called electron trees, beam trees, or lightning trees. As the electrons rapidly decelerate inside the acrylic, they also generate powerful X-rays. The X-rays darken the acrylic by introducing defects (color centers) in a process called solarization. Solarization turns acrylic specimens an amber or brownish color, although older acrylic blends sometimes turn a lime green. The color usually fades over time, and gentle heating, combined with oxygen, accelerates the fading process.
Electrical treeing often occurs in high-voltage equipment just before breakdown. Following these Lichtenberg figures in the insulation during post-mortem investigation of an insulation failure can be most useful in finding the cause of breakdown. An experienced high-voltage engineer can see from the direction and the shape of trees and their branches where the primary cause of the breakdown was situated and possibly find the initial cause. Broken-down transformers, high-voltage cables, bushings and other equipment can usefully be investigated in this manner; the insulation is unrolled (in the case of paper insulation) or sliced in thin slices (in the case of solid insulating materials). The results are then sketched or photographed in order to create an archive of the breakdown process.
The branching, self-similar patterns observed in Lichtenberg figures exhibit fractal properties. Lichtenberg figures often develop during the dielectric breakdown of solids, liquids, and even gases. Their appearance and growth appear to be related to a process called diffusion-limited aggregation or DLA. A useful macroscopic model that combines an electric field with DLA was developed by Niemeyer, Pietronero, and Weismann in 1984, and is known as the dielectric breakdown model (DBM). Although the electrical breakdown mechanisms of air and PMMA are considerably different, the branching discharges turn out to be related. So, it should not be surprising that the branching forms taken by natural lightning also have fractal characteristics.