Robert Golka threw a couple of switches in the vast darkened hangar and - POW! - the building lit up like high noon on a sunny day.

Lightning bolts danced off the inside of the roof, sizzling, crackling and flashing eerily from a 20-foot-high coil. "We're okay, so long as we stand our distance from the tower," Golka reasured his visitor. "But there is always that element of danger during my experiments. We've got to be careful not to get zapped."

Golka, 40, is one of the nation's leading lightning experimenters. He is credited with generating the most powerful lightning bolts ever created by man - flashes of 25 million volts that send off 50-foot sparks.

The scientist from Boston has been holed up for seven years, working in a huge abandoned World War II Army Air Corps hangar at the old Wendover Air Base in this remote village on the edge of the Great Salt Desert in western Utah.

The 750 residents of Wendover are not quite sure what to make of "the lightning man."

"Bob is either another Tom Edison or a mad scientist," one resident said, echoing the sentiments of nearly all those who live here. "Whatever, he's one helluva nice guy and smart as a whip."

Wendover claims to be the only town in the United States with a lightning machine. Every child and nearly every adult in town has at one time or another stood in awe in the huge hanger, watching Golka do the lightning experiments.

Golka believes his man-made lightning is a key to a cheap and endless energy source.

"I have devoted all my energies the past 11 years to the study of lightning and to the goal of being able to reproduce ball lightning, one of the rarest and most mysterious phenomena known to man," Golka explained as lightning bolts bounced off the hanger's ceiling and floor."

Ball lightning is a stable hot-gas phenomenon - a concentration of plasma resembling a soap bubble that occurs with lightning bolts on rare occasions.

"It can be a glowing sphere of a variety of colors, a half-inch or so in diameter or as big as a grapefruit," Golka said. "It is like an onion, with layers and layers of alternate charged particles, positive and negative.

"Sometimes the ball of lightning will bounce or float along through homes and buildings, lasting as long as a minute, then suddenly vanishing. It hums, crackles and hisses like drops of water on a hot stove.

"Sometimes it sets fires, sometimes it explodes. It has been known to kill people.

Ball lightning knocked out the highly sophisticated electronic equipment in a lab at Hill Air Force Base (in northern Utah) three years ago."

Golka has asked the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to sponsor a major research program, directed by him, to develop man-made ball lightning as a possible cheap source of energy.

"What I am proposing is a device I call the pyrosphere, employing five laser beams to create thermonuclear fusion," Golka said.

"The lasers would create an explosion in the air, producing a fusion reaction, getting up to 100 million degree heat in a period of 30 minutes."

In essence, he explained, the laser beams would be creating miniature suns. The fuel would be deuterium, a hydrogen isotope.

"Energy would be collected through water jackets and used to drive steam turbines. The oceans (a source of deuterium) have enough energy to sustain the present use of power for the next 10 billion years turning turbines," the scientists said.

Golka has yet to persuade DOE to underwrite his proposal.

The military long has been interested in his studies. For the last seven years the Air Force has allowed Golka to use the 50,000-square-foot hangar for $1 a year.

It is a historic hangar. It was built during World War II to house the B-29 Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Golka has had three grants totaling $68,000 - one from the Navy and two from the Air Force - to test jet fighters for lightning vulnerability.

He zinged powerful lightning bolts at F-14 and F-16 fighters and other military aircraft to see if the planes were sturdy enough to resist lightning damage to their highly sophisticated computer systems.

The Air Force is talking to Golka about doing research on particle-beam weaponry.

"What I'm doing falls right into raygun research," Golka said. "I have already generated 25 million volts here in the hangar. I can get that up to 200 million volts with 200-to 300-foot-long sparks.

"By using laser beams I believe it will be possible to melt the skin of an ICBM missile, disarming and destroying it before it can reach its target. The ray gun would have a range of 6,000 miles.

"It would take a coil three times the size of the two commbined coils I am working with in the hangar at the present," he said. One coil is 51 feet in diameter, the other is the 20-foot tower.

Golka said he would much rather help the energy program than devote his time and efforts to Buck Rogers-type ray guns, "but I can no longer do research solely on dreams." He gave up a lucrative electronics business in Boston in 1968 when he moved to Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats.

"I'm running out of funds. I scrounge dumps for materials with which to fabricate my equipment. I have already spent $100,000 of my own money on my research .fs.."

Golka could be making a small fortune in Boston by running a conventional electronics business, but it is not his nature. "I was getting bored. I wanted new challenges. I have had this lifelong obession to do lightning research," he explained.

He has never married because "marriage and science don't mix when someone spends practically every moment awake on research."

He lives with his two mongrel dogs, Captain Proton and Commander Klystron, in a trailer. During the winter, when temperatures often drop nearly to zero in the unheated hangar, he bundles up in heavy clothing and keeps working. When his frustrations get the best of him, Golka sits down at his piano and plays his favorite tunes, "The Wabash Cannonball" and "The Entertainer."

During the recent controversy over the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania, he was on the phone again and again, trying to get someone from the Energy Department to come to Wendover to see what he is up to.

"What I'm proposing is fusion, the combining of hydrogen atoms to form a helium atom. With fission - the splitting of heavy particles such as plutonium - there is always the very dangerous risk of radioactive hyproducts. That risk is non-existent in ball-lightning fusion," Golka insisted, adding: "If you don't look under the rocks you will never find anything. I've looked under the rocks. I've found something. Now all I have to do is get the government or one of the big utilities to get intertested in what I'm doing."