Lightning can generate an abundant amount of antimatter, the perplexing substance that has the curious property of emitting light and disappearing when it encounters matter, Japanese scientists have found.

The group of researchers from Kyoto University, the University of Tokyo and other institutions is the first to discover this phenomenon.

“I was surprised to find out that antimatter is in fact being generated in quite familiar scenes,” said team member Teruaki Enoto, a program-specific associate professor of astrophysics with Kyoto University.

Previous reports showed that antimatter can be generated, for example, by the collision of cosmic rays, or high-energy particles arriving from outer space, with Earth’s atmosphere.

Antimatter has electrical properties that are the opposite of those of matter.

It is believed that antimatter and matter existed in identical amounts when the universe was born, but most of the antimatter has since disappeared.

Antimatter, however, can be generated artificially by using an accelerator.

In “Angels & Demons,” a 2009 U.S. movie, antimatter was portrayed as a weapon that releases vast amounts of energy when it comes in contact with matter.

Enoto and his colleagues monitored gamma rays that were emitted from thunderclouds in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, in February. They detected a characteristic type of gamma ray that is released when positrons, a type of antimatter, are annihilated.

They also found a mechanism whereby positrons are produced by radioactive isotopes of nitrogen that are generated by lightning.

One electrical discharge in a thundercloud produces several trillion positrons, which are generated and annihilated repeatedly in a matter of about 10 minutes, the scientists said.

The research results were published online Nov. 23 in Nature, the British science journal.