Report: Scientists can now control lightning with lasers

News & Politics

Humanity now boasts the ability once attributed to mythological gods such as Zeus, Marduk, and Thor.

Scientists atop a Swiss mountain proved themselves capable of steering lightning bolts using lasers, effectively deflecting four lightning strikes on a telecommunications tower.

While this field of research has been active for decades, physicist Aurélien Houard of the École Polytechnique and his team documented the first experiment that demonstrates the efficacy of lightning guidance using lasers.

Where there’s thunder, there may be lasers

In a study published Monday in the academic journal Nature Photonics, researchers discussed how laser-induced beams of light, formed in the sky via intense and repeated laser pulses, can guide lightning bolts over considerable distances.

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The scientists experimented on the Säntis mountain in northeastern Switzerland during the summer of 2021 with a “high-repetition-rate terawatt laser.”

They set up this 1.5 meter by 8 meter laser, weighing in at over three tons, nearby a telecommunication tower that is struck by lightning over 100 times a year.

The scientists activated their laser as a lightning rod “with a propagation path passing in the vicinity of the top of the [telecommunication] tower” during thunderstorms, as seen here:

The telecommunication tower, itself equipped with a lightning rod, was struck by 16 lightning bolts between July 21 and Sept. 30, 2021. Only four of these strikes occurred during the 6.3 hours the scientists had their laser operational and targeting the thunderclouds above.

In all four cases, the laser reportedly steered the lightning discharges.

According to the Guardian, the laser steers the lightning flashes by “creating an easier path for the electrical discharge to flow along.”

“When very high power laser pulses are emitted into the atmosphere, filaments of very intense light form inside the beam,” Jean-Pierre Wolf, one of the study’s authors, told Sky News. “These filaments ionise nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the air, which release electrons that are free to move. This ionised air, called plasma, becomes an electrical conductor.”

The scientists indicated that snapshots of one of the events showed “that the lightning strike initially follows the laser path over most of the initial 50 m distance.”

According to the study, this achievement “will lead to progress in lightning protection and lightning physics.”

The Hill reported that there were nearly 198 million lighting events in the U.S. in 2022, which altogether claimed the lives of 19 people. The ability to divert and/or steer lightning could therefore be lifesaving.

“This work paves the way for new atmospheric applications of ultrashort lasers and represents an important step forward in the development of a laser based lightning protection for airports, launchpads or large infrastructures,” wrote the researchers.

Whereas the “laser conditions” in this experiment had a length of at least 30 meters, Sky News noted that future devices could extend a ten-meter lightning rod by 500 meters, offering far more protection.

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