Lasers have been used to divert lightning strikes in real-world experiments. The work suggests that laser beams could be used as lightning rods to protect infrastructure, although perhaps not any time soon.
Metal lightning rods are commonly used to divert lightning strikes and safely dissipate their charge. But the rods’ size is limited and they protect a small area.
25 researchers set up the Laser Lightning Rod project, which used €2 million (US$2 million) for a high-power laser in the Swiss Alps. The scientists placed the laser next to the Säntis telecommunications tower, which is hit frequently by lightning.
Intense laser beam can create a conductive path for lightning to travel down, just as a metal wire can. Physicists think that it does this by shifting the properties of air so that the beam focuses into a thin, intense filament. This rapidly heats the air, reducing its density and creating a favorable path for lightning.
Rather than try to divert lightning from the tower, the Säntis experiments were designed to show that the laser could guide a strike’s path through the structure’s lightning rod. In future use, similar beams would guide strikes away from sensitive installations and onto a distant lightning rod.
Over 10 weeks of observation, the team spotted the laser channeling 4 lightning events during 6 hours of thunderstorms. A high-speed camera clearly showed one strike following the straight line of the laser beam, rather than taking a branching path.
They will need to improve the system, miniaturize it and greatly lower the cost.
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