Giant lasers will protect us from lightning strikes


Despite all the technological innovation that the modern industrial age has brought us, lightning protection is not on the list. To protect our homes and buildings from lightning strikes and subsequent fires, we still rely on the lightning rod, a technology invented by Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. Yes, really: our best method of sending lightning still comes from the guy who tied a metal key to a kite and flew it during a thunderstorm.

Still, Franklin’s lightning rod—consisting of a conductive metal bar that directs lightning to the ground through a wire—works well in most situations. “The classic Franklin Rod is very efficient and relatively cheap,” Aurélien Houard, a physicist at the École polytechnique in Palaiseau, France, told The Daily Beast in an email. “The main limitation has to do with size and with the fact that you can’t install lightning rods everywhere, while lightning strikes can fall almost anywhere.”

Lightning strikes don’t just damage buildings. Schouten can affect people, cause hundreds of injuries and about 20 deaths per year in the US, and cause destructive wildfires. Creating ways to protect more than buildings from lightning damage — or better yet, devising a single method to attract lightning bolts and safely discharge them — would be the biggest breakthrough in centuries for this area of ​​study.

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Unlikely enough, scientists have managed to do just that. A team led by Houard and Swiss physicist Jean-Pierre Wolf has presented results showing that intense, short laser pulses can direct and possibly even trigger lightning to strike a single source. Their findings were published Jan. 16 in the journal Nature photonics.

In the 1960s, researchers discovered that lightning could be triggered and controlled by firing small rockets attached to a conductive wire into the sky during a storm. While it’s clearly not a practical solution, the science behind this method gave physicists an idea: Why not use a laser instead to send out a continuous beam of conductive energy and extend the range of a lightning rod?

“The laser creates a virtual extension of the metal bar,” Houard explained, noting that a bar is usually only a few feet high and can only protect as many feet as it is high. Lasers produce narrow beams of light, heat and release electrons from the air molecules in its path, which can then conduct electricity. Lightning prefers to travel along a conductive path (which is why lightning rods work in the first place), so a giant laser beam will naturally direct it to the smaller metal rod below.

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The physicists conducted an experiment in the summer of 2021 to test their laser mountain atop a telecommunications tower that itself stood atop Mount Säntis, the highest mountain in a massif in northeastern Switzerland. After the laser was trucked and reassembled at the top of the mountain, the physicists operated the laser during a thunderstorm between July and September 2021 for a total of 6 hours and 20 minutes.

By analyzing high-speed images and a device that measures very high-frequency activity typical of lightning strikes, the researchers found that the laser successfully guided four different lightning strikes. Shockingly, one of these impacts followed the laser’s path for more than 50 meters to the metal rod, an impressively long distance.

Unlike previous failed attempts to build a laser lightning rod, Houard said the group’s laser generated more than 100 times more shots per second — since lightning can develop and discharge in milliseconds, this kind of precision likely played a critical role in the success of the team. In addition, the location of the laser increased the likelihood that lightning would strike the general vicinity of the laser:

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“In most places, lightning develops from the cloud to the ground, and it’s impossible to predict exactly where it will go,” Houard said. “But on Mount Säntis, all the lightning strikes the tower, and this happens almost 100 times a year.”

Houard said the researchers hope to repeat their experiment with different colored lasers and vary the amount of energy expended per pulse to collect more data and extend the lightning rod’s reach. Next, they want to test the laser in environments that are more like a real environment, not on top of a mountain. Theoretically, with enough laser energy, one could generate temporary protection with a laser lightning rod hundreds of meters high and protect very large and tall structures.

While the analyzed results are only now coming to light, Wolf told CNN that the experiment’s success would have been evident months earlier when the experiment ended in September 2021. bottle of whisky, if you know what I mean,’ he said.