Not quite the kite of the future, scientists use lasers to induce lightning in thunderclouds

Long since before Ben Franklin tried to electrocute himself in a thunderstorm, man has been curious about the beauty and power of lightning. Post-Franklin, our knowledge of the intricacies of atmospheric electrical discharge has grown by leaps and bounds. One thing we haven't quite figured out is how to reliably and safely trigger lightning strikes. Shooting rockets trailing conductive wire into thunderclouds has proved to be about fifty percent effective at producing a strike.

The idea of using lasers to provoke a discharge has been kicked around for thirty years and recently European researchers managed a small victory using high power pulsed laser beams. Though much more powerful than the lasers of yore, Teramobile's current laser lacks the power to bring a discharge to the ground.

The Teramobile project is an international program dedicated to researching the nonlinear propagation of high powered pulse lasers over great distances through the atmosphere. One of the focuses of the research is triggering lightning strikes using a mobile terawatt laser unit.

In this case, the lasers trigger lightning by producing plasma filaments inside thunderclouds. The filaments conduct electricity and can cause electrical discharge. However, the filaments created by the Teramobile laser were too small and dispersed too quickly to allow the discharge to carry for more than a few meters inside the cloud.

The tests were conducted at Langmuir Laboratory in New Mexico. The lab, perched upon the 10,500-foot South Baldy Peak, is equipped with instruments to study atmospheric electrical discharges. After firing the femtosecond-terawatt pulse laser into passing thunderclouds, analysis showed that the electrical activity in the target area was enhanced, alluding to small discharges within the cloud itself.

The ability to trigger lightning strikes could be beneficial in a number of industries. A better understanding of the effects of lightning strikes on aircraft, buildings, antennas, power lines, electrical systems and many other man-made technology would be useful in designing systems and devices that are better protected or more suited to use during them.

Lasers are also probably a lot safer than kite strings.

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