A description of the known physical properties of a thunderstorm reveals that active charge separation occurs during that stage of the storm's life-cycle in which the growth of graupel by the accretion of supercooled droplets is the dominant process. Laboratory experiments under simulated thunderstorm conditions show that a graupel pellet, growing by the accretion of supercooled droplets, acquires negative charge as a result of collisions with ice crystals. Other experiments show that when two ice formations are placed in rubbing contact, the ice which is warmer, or which contains trace amounts of contaminants, acquires negative charge. Further experiments suggest that the charge separation results from potential differences which arise during the resolidification of a liquid layer formed at the ice-ice contact.
Calculations indicate that the graupel pellets in a thunderstorm, as a result of the acquisition of the latent heat of supercooled droplets, will achieve temperatures several degrees warmer than coexisting ice crystals. Thus the graupel pellets will acquire negative charge as a result of rubbing contacts with ice crystals. The graupel pellets have much higher fall velocities than ice crystals, thus accounting for the polarity of the main thunderstorm dipole. Measurements suggest that the amount of charge separated per graupelcrystal collision is adequate to account for the magnitude of the charges of the main dipole.