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Lightning Controlled By Scientists With Lasers in Breakthrough
Lasers fired from a Swiss mountain were able to successfully deflect lightning bots, paving the path for more effective defense against lightning strikes.
A Long Time Coming
According to a new study, for the first time ever, scientists have harnessed lightning bolts and guided them into new routes using lasers. This discovery could improve protection from these potentially hazardous sky strikes.
Although the concept of using lasers to redirect lightning has been around for a while, the recently reported experiment, which took place on Switzerland’s Säntis Mountain in the summer of 2021, is the first to really show how this process works.
Controlling lightning is a difficult task, as it is a natural phenomenon caused by the buildup and discharge of electrical energy in the atmosphere. Scientists have been studying lightning for centuries, but there is still much that is not understood about it.
Some methods that have been proposed for controlling lightning include using aircraft or rockets to “seed” clouds with particles that can change the charge distribution and trigger lightning, building tall towers or masts that can attract lightning strikes, and using lasers or microwaves to change the charge distribution in the atmosphere.
However, none of these methods have been proven to be effective and many are still in the research stage.
Researchers at ENSTA Paris and Ecole Polytechnique under the direction of Aurélien Houard present “the first field-result that experimentally demonstrates lightning guided by lasers,” which is “an important step forward in the development of a laser based lightning protection for airports, launchpads, or large infrastructures.”
Four “upward” lightning discharges, or bolts that strike upward from the earth, were successfully steered by laser pulses fired into the sky over Säntis Mountain by Houard and his colleagues.
One of these intercepts was captured by fast-moving cameras, which showed that the lasers could direct a lightning strike more than 50 meters (164 feet).
According to the research, infrastructure within a half-mile radius and at elevations of several hundred meters may be shielded by laser-based lightning rods.
Since the beginning of time, lightning has captivated and terrified humans.
According to satellite data, the global average lightning flash rate—which includes cloud-to-ground and cloud lightning—is estimated to be between 40 and 120 flashes per second, resulting in significant property damage and fatalities.
The team said, “Here we give the first demonstration that lightning discharges can be guided over significant distances by laser-induced filaments—formed in the sky by short and powerful laser pulses.
We think that this experimental discovery will advance lightning physics and lightning defense.
By positioning a laser close to a communications tower on the mountain that is a lightning hotspot, the researchers were able to reach this milestone.
The apparatus fired laser pulses into the sky during thunderstorms, which caused air molecules and particles to coalesce into plasma formations.
Using a number of methods, Houard and his coworkers demonstrated that this plasma can draw and direct lightning discharges, although they were only able to do so for upward hits, which are much more frequent at Säntis Mountain than the more typical downward sky-to-ground strikes.
To that aim, the team is hoping that subsequent tests will polish this promising technology and enable its application to crucial infrastructure.
The scientists wrote in their study that “the results of the Säntis experimental campaign in the summer of 2021 provide circumstantial evidence that filaments formed by short and intense laser pulses can guide lightning discharges over significant distances.”
“Additional campaigns with new configurations should be conducted to confirm these preliminary results.”
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