Laser lightning rod: Guiding bursts of electricity with a flash of light

Mar 13, 2012
Lightning
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Lightning is a fascinating but dangerous atmospheric phenomenon. New research reveals that brief bursts of intense laser light can redirect these high-power electrical discharges.

Using an experimental apparatus reminiscent of a classic Frankenstein movie, French researchers have coaxed laboratory-generated lightning into striking the same place, not just twice, but over and over. This feat of electrical reorientation used femtosecond (one quadrillionth of a second) pulses of laser light to create a virtual lightning rod out of a column of ionized gas. This is the first time that these laser-induced atmospheric were able to redirect an electrical discharge away from its intended target and guide it to a normally less-attractive electrode.

The experiment demonstrates the potential of using laser-based lightning rods for research and protection. "The laser would be a valuable alternative to lightning rockets," says Aurlien Houard, Ph.D., of the Laboratoire d'Optique Appliquée and co-author on a paper published in the American Institute of Physics' journal AIP Advances.

Previous experiments confirmed that femtosecond laser could produce ultrashort filaments of that act like electrical guide wires. Further studies revealed that these filaments could function over long distances, potentially greater than 50 meters.

In a series of new experiments, the French research team sent a laser beam skimming past a spherical electrode to an oppositely charged planar electrode. The laser stripped away the outer electrons from the atoms along its path, creating a plasma filament that channeled an electrical discharge from the planar electrode to the spherical one. To determine if the filament had the ability to redirect an electrical discharge from its normal path, the researchers added a longer, pointed electrode to their experiment. Since lightning tends to follow the path of least resistance, it would preferentially strike the nearest object; in nature, that would be the tallest object.

Without the laser, the discharge obeyed this rule and always struck the taller, pointed electrode. With the laser, however, the discharge was redirected, following the filaments and striking the spherical instead. This occurred even after the initial path of the discharge began to form.

Explore further: At the origin of cell division: The features of living matter emerge from inanimate matter

More information: "Triggering, guiding and deviation of long air spark discharges with femtosecond laser filament" has been published in AIP Advances.

Provided by American Institute of Physics

4.7 /5 (14 votes)

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Kinedryl
1 / 5 (13) Mar 13, 2012
Next time they will prove, the laser guided lightning can follow the upper-down direction or the angled path or what? These experiments all appear very incremental for me - they're apparently serving as a great generator of publications and salaries for physicists involved, but where the actual progress is? http://articles.l...20110529
Blakut
5 / 5 (3) Mar 13, 2012
Hey Kine, ever wonder how government pays the scientists? Does the government pay for innovation? Do they know what innovation really is? It's really tough to get funding nowadays, and since i have a little experience with these things, i can tell you it's tough to get money from the government as a scientist.
Kinedryl
1 / 5 (7) Mar 13, 2012
Hey Kine, ever wonder how government pays the scientists?
Of course, the paying is bad. Actually, in some governemental studies the average scientist spends forty percent of his research time just with collection of money for the remaining sixty percent. http://www.scient...no-money In this regard the mainstream science becomes similar to various decadent if not semilegal entrepreneurship (insurance services based on Ponzi scheme for example), where the investments into advertising represent huge portion of profit.

The origin of the whole problem is poor public feedback of the scientific research, which enables a huge overemployment. The scientists aren't forced into effective research, so they're fu*ing cold fusion heartily and wasting time with entertaining but useless toys. Of course they don't get high salary for it, but because scientists aren't forced to evince any productivity, they can accept it as a price for their academical freedom
Kinedryl
1 / 5 (11) Mar 13, 2012
At the moment, when 40% of time is spent with nonproductive activity, then it's evident, we should fire half of scientific community immediately and give their money to the rest of scientists, which will work with 100% utilization of their time (or at least substantially higher one). We don't need the theories developed for fifty years without single confirmations, like the string theories, we don't need to seek for every tiny bump of data in expensive collider, we don't need to seek for nonexisting gravitational waves. What we need to do is to orient the science into really usefulls branch of human activity, which isn't loaded with prejudices and it will be oriented to the service of human civilization, not the scientists itself. Without it it could never happen, the fundamental findings like the cold fusion, antigravity or room temperature superconductivity will be ignored for years, while the rest of world is facing financial and energetic crisis, if not the risk of nuclear war.
SteveL
5 / 5 (3) Mar 13, 2012
I remember reading that someone used this same ionizing path via laser technique to build a "phaser" weapon a few years ago.
HannesAlfven
1.6 / 5 (7) Mar 13, 2012
Nice one, Kinedryl! I love those links!

How about these ...

http://www.uow.ed...jse.html
http://directions.../doc.pdf

By the way, I read that Ralph Juergens once visited a site where a power line discharged into a tree for a large number of days. When he got there, the tree was petrified!

BTW, has anybody started thinking about why we see upper-atmosphere lightning yet? Is this something we're allowed to talk about now?
Sean_W
1.2 / 5 (6) Mar 13, 2012
I remember reading that someone used this same ionizing path via laser technique to build a "phaser" weapon a few years ago.


You're right. I would guess that mobile power sources or reliability issues have slowed development but that is speculation on my part. Maybe they will be demonstrated any day now; maybe not.

In fact, I thought that someone had actually used lasers (as opposed to just rockets trailing metal filaments) to attract a lightning bolt from a storm cloud. Am I mistaken (asking anyone who knows)?
nkalanaga
5 / 5 (3) Mar 13, 2012
Wonder if there's enough energy density in the ionosphere to tap it with a laser? The Sun recharges it constantly, and there are natural currents keeping the ground and ionosphere connected, so if we could concentrate and redirect those, we should have "free" power.

On the other hand, we'd have the world's largest lightning bolt, running continuously, and I doubt that radios would work anywhere near it...
Estevan57
2.3 / 5 (31) Mar 14, 2012
"Wonder if there's enough energy density in the ionosphere to tap it with a laser?"

What an interesting thought, nkalanaga. Perhaps someday this could be used as a mechanism to charge a large energy storage device(s), provided the problem of the regulation of the massive current could be solved. There are many benefits to controlling the striking point of lightning.

Kinedryl, was government funding actually used for this? Or do you really just want to grind the scientists bad, scientists bad, axe again? Your own prejudices are showing when you list such things as cold fusion, antigravity, and room temperature superconductivityas fields not pursued. These have all been studied, with varying results. Millions have been put into cold fusion research with very little to show for it. While I would be happy with a breakthrough in the field, There just hasn't been one yet.

Is basic research nonproductive activity?
Callippo
1 / 5 (8) Mar 14, 2012
Millions have been put into cold fusion research with very little to show for it
But just single gravitational wave detector costs one billion. These investments are incomparable.
Is basic research nonproductive activity?
Of course not, if it's a research of cold fusion, antigravity or RT superconductivity. But which usage the finding of Higgs boson has?
Estevan57
2.3 / 5 (30) Mar 14, 2012
I would agree that the gravitational wave detectors (300 million to 1 billion) don't seem to have much practical application.
But as has been shown countless times, the applications may come with the understanding of the natural phenomenon.

I have always found it interesting that the study of the most basic properties of the universe frequently are the most expensive and difficult.

As to the relative merits of funding, a little progress goes a long way towards insuring future funding. The timing of the proposed project may have a lot to do with funding also. There are many expensive project started when the economic outlook was much better than it is now. It is politically easier to complete a major project than to start a moderate one in hard financial times.

One persons important research is anothers boondoggle. Saying scientists are only in it for the money rankles me. Cynicism and conspiricy theory are not an effective substitute for intellectual openness. Response to Kinedryl
Sean_W
1 / 5 (3) Mar 14, 2012
I suppose that a series of more powerful lasers could rob each previous stream by providing a more conductive pathway. One could create a path through a volume of space. Could it be possible to create a spiralout of angled lines to form an electromagnet in free space without any solid equipment in the immediate area? I don't know why one would want to but it would at least look cool to see a corkscrew lightning bolt.
Callippo
1 / 5 (5) Mar 14, 2012
Saying scientists are only in it for the money rankles me. Cynicism and conspiricy theory are not an effective substitute for intellectual openness.
This is just a misunderstanding. The fact, the bankers are avaricious often doesn't mean, they're doing it because of some conspiracy. Their job just attracts certain type of people. Conspiracy is sorta hidden agreement, but between scientists no such agreement actually exist. They're forming an egoistic community, which used to ask for money from public sources, while struggling to prolonge this parasitic existence as long as possible. After all, the Robert Wilson, a former president of APS has expressed it clearly. Was he cynical, conspiratorial or simply senile and old enough for throw out the hypocrisy? I've many evidences for my stance.
Callippo
1 / 5 (4) Mar 14, 2012
I don't know why one would want to but it would at least look cool to see a corkscrew lightning bolt.
Until you have no application for it, you should research it from your own money like Faraday or Tesla. After all, there are always much more topics, which are both interesting, both useful at the same moment - and such topics should get a priority for every normaly thinking people. The basic research without applications should get its money just at the very end. What I'm missing is the prioritization of research and public feedback in grant system.
Sean_W
3 / 5 (2) Mar 14, 2012
Until you have no application for it, you should research it from your own money like Faraday or Tesla. After all, there are always much more topics, which are both interesting, both useful at the same moment - and such topics should get a priority for every normaly thinking people. The basic research without applications should get its money just at the very end. What I'm missing is the prioritization of research and public feedback in grant system.


I was commenting more from a thought experiment point of view; not so much as a suggestion that someone apply for a grant to make corkscrew lightning bolts. But if anyone out there does have a bunch of lasers, some cash, a hill on their ranch land and some free time, feel free to run with the idea.
Estevan57
2.2 / 5 (30) Mar 14, 2012
Actually, after reading the article I believe he was being tongue-in-cheek, humorous, and just a little sarcastic. Seriously.

"Cynicism and conspiricy theory are not an effective substitute for intellectual openness."

To clarify, I meant that the people that complain about this or that area of science not getting funding because the "mainstream" is trying to keep them down tend to be the most cynical and conspiratorial. They tend to deflect the comments to "government funding the wrong research", "capitalism vs socialism", or "conservativism vs socialism' regardless of the actual article.

I was not at all implying this of scientists in general or specific, but in responce to Kindryls nontopic posts.

I agree that research is parasitic, but so is everything funded by the government. Gov. funding is 31% of science sector funding, and tends to fund more raw science than the private sector.

I would much rather discuss the articles, but there is so much nontopical agenda in the way
Callippo
1 / 5 (4) Mar 17, 2012
I agree that research is parasitic, but so is everything funded by the government. Gov. funding is 31% of science sector funding
After then we have no difference in opinion (in this context is interesting, you got 15 points, whereas me -10 points). I've no problem with ending of governmental support of scientific research. If private subjects want to support these things, it's their free will.
Tausch
1 / 5 (1) Mar 18, 2012
RE: Kudos naga.

Hope HAARP replaces their antiquated antennas with femtosecond lasers - all hinges on ionospheric energy density - based on your premonition that this is the key to tapping this source.*

*We will turn to you once again after we have depleted the ionosphere.

:)
SteveL
5 / 5 (2) Mar 20, 2012
Ending public support of scientific research is a good way to inact societal change from first nation status to third nation status in a few short generations. If you're interested in such things.
When it comes to scientific advancement there is plenty of room in the back seat with the other non-achievers. We will either lead, or follow. There really aren't any other options.
Tausch
1 / 5 (1) Mar 25, 2012
Advance societies have no leaders, followers, back seats, non-achievers, statuses, and everyone always has support and numberless options.

Barbaric societies have back seats, non-achievers, leaders and followers, status and are optional-less and never have support from any source for anything.

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