We Can Now Control Lightning With Lasers

We Can Now Control Lightning With Lasers

If there are two things I love, it’s lightning and lasers, and now we can control one with the other, per research from a consortium of European research organisations.

Over on the Institut Polytechnique de Paris website, the common method for lightning deflection is said to have “changed little since 1752 when Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod”. Similar rods exist today and are effective means of keeping lightning from striking things we’d prefer it to stay away from.

However, it’s not a perfect solution, and as the institute argues, it’s not optimal for protecting sensitive sites over wide areas, like airports, wind farms or nuclear power plants.

So, what could the solution be? Well, the research team believe it could be the Laser Lightning Rod (side note: what a cool name).

The high-powered laser was placed on the top of Säntis, the highest mountain in the Alpstein massif region of northeastern Switzerland (around 2,500m above sea level).

The Laser Lightning Rod creates a field of ionised air, which attracts the lightning. The laser was mounted on top of a tower, with a traditional lightning rod attached.

“When very high-power laser pulses are emitted into the atmosphere, filaments of very intense light form inside the beam,” Department of Applied Physics at the University of Geneva Professor Jean-Pierre Wolf said.

“These filaments ionise the nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the air, which then release electrons that are free to move. This ionised air, called plasma, becomes an electrical conductor.”

As storms were forecast between June and September 2021, the laser was activated (and air traffic into the area closed). It took over a year for the researchers to analyse the data.

“From the first lightning event using the laser, we found that the discharge could follow the beam for nearly 60 metres before reaching the tower, meaning that it increased the radius of the protection surface from 120 m to 180 m,” Wolf added.

The next step for the research is to extend its effective range even further, with the goal of reaching up to 500 metres.

You can read the research on the Institut Polytechnique de Paris website, or read the paper in Nature Photonics.


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