(Source: Gonzalo Arias)
A laser induced plasma channel guides the lightning bolt until it reaches the target

LIPC stands for The Laser-Induced Plasma Channel, but for all intents and purposes, it might as well stand for "lightning gun".  

The project combines two of the coolest things known to man -- lightning and lasers -- and turns them into one mean superweapon, which could soon be capable of unleashing devastating damage at mid-range to close-quarters.

George Fischer, U.S. Army Picatinny Arsenal lead scientist is heading the project.  He describes:

Light travels more slowly in gases and solids than it does in a vacuum.  We typically think of the speed of light in each material as constant. There is, however, a very small additional intensity-dependent factor to its speed. In air, this factor is positive, so light slows down by a tiny fraction when the light is more intense."

If a laser puts out a pulse with modest energy, but the time is incredibly tiny, the power can be huge.  During the duration of the laser pulse, it can be putting out more power than a large city needs, but the pulse only lasts for two-trillionths of a second."

For very powerful and high intensity laser pulses, the air can act like a lens, keeping the light in a small-diameter filament.  We use an ultra-short-pulse laser of modest energy to make a laser beam so intense that it focuses on itself in air and stays focused in a filament.

The optical amplifier outputs 50 billion watts of optical power -- about the equivalent of 500 million household incandescent light bulbs.  The focused beam in turn creates a plasma channel, which electricity can be directed along to create manmade, targeted lightning.  Describes Fischer:

If a laser beam is intense enough, its electro-magnetic field is strong enough to rip electrons off of air molecules, creating plasma.  This plasma is located along the path of the laser beam, so we can direct it wherever we want by moving a mirror.

Air is composed of neutral molecules and is an insulator.  When lightning from a thunderstorm leaps from cloud to ground, it behaves just as any other sources of electrical energy and follows the path of least resistance.

The plasma channel conducts electricity way better than un-ionized air, so if we set up the laser so that the filament comes near a high voltage source, the electrical energy will travel down the filament.

Since enemy vehicles and munitions tend to be more conductive than the ground they sit on, they create voltage drop that channels the lightning out of the beam and into the target.  Unexploded munitions will detonate.

The high voltage laser requires precise synchronization.  One wrong move could lead it to destroy itself.  Describes Fischer, "If the light focuses in air, there is certainly the danger that it will focus in a glass lens, or in other parts of the laser amplifier system, destroying it.  We needed to lower the intensity in the optical amplifier and keep it low until we wanted the light to self-focus in air."
Lightning weapon
LIPC hits a car with a lightning bolt, during a test. [Image Source: U.S. Army]

The new twist on the laser weapon may soon join high-power direct laser weapons and devastating rail guns on the battlefield.

Early tests in January 2012 proved quite successful, according to the researcher.  He says much work still remains in ruggedizing the prototype for operational environments, and enabling it to take multiple shots.

But he adds, "We never got tired of the lightning bolts zapping our simulated (targets)."

Source: U.S. Army

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