Scientists Direct Lightning Using Lasers

Physicists in Switzerland have found a way to use lasers to keep lightning away from important structures, but its overall value is still unknown. 

“It is inspiring,” Matteo Clerici, a physicist at the University of Glasgow, said. Clerici was not involved in the project. “What will be the application of this? We can only speculate.”

The experimental efforts were completed in 2021 and the research, published on Monday in Nature Photonics, stated that the scientists show “the first demonstration that laser-induced filaments,” which are created by brief, harsh laser pulses, can direct lightning over significant areas of space. 

For years, the way to keep lightning from destroying buildings was to use a lightning rod, which was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1752, Science noted. The metal rod is connected to the top of a structure and then attached to the earth using a wire. The lightning is attracted to the rod and away from the structure. The wire sends the electricity into the ground after the rod is struck by lightning. 

Aurélien Houard, a physicist at the École Polytechnique, told Science that researchers have wondered if lasers could be used to move lightning, too. The idea would be centered around the concept that the laser could establish a straight course of ionized air on which the electric current could more easily transmit. 

Scientists created lasers in the 1990s that put off pulses that only lasted femtoseconds, which are “quadrillionths (or millionths of a billionth) of a second,” according to MIT News.

The briefer pulses of less energy were better at unlocking channels that were conductive, according to Houard. Parts of the air are ionized by the laser, which can then make a lengthy “filament.” This filament can heat up the air, pushing molecules away and making a channel that is more effective at conducting electricity, which attracts the lightning.

Prior attempts in a natural environment of lightning haven’t worked, but experiments in labs have been successful. However, this new team of researchers found a way to make it work in real life. Houard has worked as head of the group, along with Jean-Pierre Wolf, a physicist at the University of Geneva. 

“Although this research field has been very active for more than 20 years, this is the first field-result that experimentally demonstrates lightning guided by lasers,” the published study noted. 

The team put a femtosecond laser on the top of Switzerland’s Säntis mountain beside a communications structure, which gets struck by lightning over 100 times annually.

During their experiments, the group radiated their laser past the tower’s high point during thunderstorms over several months in 2021. Lightning struck the tower four times when the laser was operating, and scientists found that in all of the four strikes, the laser changed the lightning’s path.

Even though the experiments proved that the lightning would follow the laser, such lasers are millions of dollars. However, Houard noted that sometimes, a laser beam might be more attractive than a lightning rod since the laser has the ability to protect more ground. 

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