A powerful laser can redirect lightning strikes

Like a high-tech hammer of Thor, a robust laser can seize maintain of a lightning bolt and reroute its path by means of the sky.

In a mountaintop experiment, such a laser bent lightning toward a lightning rod, researchers report on-line January 16 in Nature Photonics. Scientists have used lasers to wrangle electrical energy within the lab earlier than, however that is the primary demonstration that the method works in real-world storms and will sometime result in higher safety in opposition to lightning.

At present’s commonest anti-lightning tech is the basic lightning rod, a meters-long metallic pole rooted to the bottom. The metallic’s conductivity lures in lightning that may in any other case strike close by buildings or folks, feeding that electrical energy safely into the earth. However the space shielded by a lightning rod is restricted by the rod’s top.

“If you wish to defend some massive infrastructure, like an airport or a launching pad for rockets or a wind farm … then you definitely would wish, for good safety, a lightning rod of kilometer measurement, or a whole lot of meters,” says Aurélien Houard, a physicist at Institut Polytechnique de Paris in Palaiseau, France. Such a tall metallic pole could be impractical. However a laser might attain that far, intercepting distant lightning bolts and ushering them right down to ground-based metallic rods.

Houard and his colleagues examined this concept atop the Säntis mountain in northeastern Switzerland. They arrange a high-power laser close to a telecommunications tower tipped with a lightning rod that’s struck by lightning round 100 occasions yearly. The laser was beamed on the sky for about six hours whole throughout thunderstorms from July to September 2021.

A high-speed camera image of a tangled lightning bolt curving toward and then down a lightning rod
On July 24, 2021, pretty clear skies allowed a high-speed digital camera to seize the second {that a} laser bent the trail of a lightning bolt between the sky and a lightning rod atop a tower. The lightning adopted the route of the laser gentle for some 50 meters.A. Houard et al/Nature Photonics 2023

The laser blasted quick, intense bursts of infrared gentle on the clouds about 1,000 occasions per second. This prepare of sunshine pulses ripped electrons off air molecules and knocked some air molecules out of its approach, carving out a channel of low-density, charged plasma. Form of like clearing a path by means of the woods and laying down pavement, this mix of results made it easier for electric current to flow alongside this route (SN: 3/5/14). That created a path of least resistance for lightning to comply with by means of the sky.

Houard’s staff tuned their laser in order that it fashioned this electrically conductive pathway simply above the tip of the tower. This allowed the tower’s lightning rod to intercept a bolt snagged by the laser earlier than it zipped all the best way right down to the laser gear.

The tower was hit by lightning 4 occasions whereas the laser was on. A kind of strikes occurred in a reasonably clear sky, permitting two high-speed cameras to seize the second. These pictures confirmed lightning zigzagging down from the clouds and following the laser gentle for some 50 meters towards the tower’s lightning rod.

To trace the paths of the three bolts that they may not see, the researchers checked out radio waves shed by the lightning. These radio waves confirmed that the three strikes adopted the trail of the laser way more intently than different strikes that occurred when the laser was off. This hinted that the laser guided these three strikes to the lightning rod, as nicely.

This 3-D reconstruction fashions a lightning strike captured by high-speed cameras in July 2021. It exhibits the second that the lightning bolt hit a metallic rod atop a tower, its path guided by means of the sky by a robust laser.

“It’s an actual achievement,” says Howard Milchberg, a physicist on the College of Maryland in Faculty Park not concerned within the work. “Folks have been attempting to do that for a few years.” Scientists’ major purpose in bending lightning to their will is to extend security, he says. However “if this factor ever grew to become actually, actually environment friendly, and the likelihood of guiding a discharge was elevated approach past what it’s now, it might doubtlessly even be helpful for charging issues up.”

Atmospheric and area scientist Robert Holzworth is extra cautious about imagining the purposes. “They solely confirmed 50 meters of [guiding] size, and most lightning channels are kilometers lengthy,” says Holzworth, of the College of Washington in Seattle. So scaling the laser system as much as have a helpful attain could take loads of work.

Utilizing a higher-frequency, higher-energy laser might lengthen its attain, Houard says. “It is a first step towards a kilometric-range lightning rod.”


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