A team of 25 scientists have managed, for the first time, to divert the path of the rays thanks to a powerful laser. The results of this experiment, carried out within the framework of the Laser Lightning Rod project, have been published in the journal ‘Nature Photonics’. Researchers suggest that laser beams could be used as lightning rods to protect critical infrastructure such as power plants, airports and launch pads, although we may have to wait and see.
The device, the size of a large car, uses powerful and fast laser pulses (it can fire up to a thousand pulses per second) to deflect the path of the rays. To test its operation, the laser was placed, in the summer of 2021, next to a telecommunications tower located on the Säntis mountain in Switzerland, which is struck about 100 times a year by lightning. Over 10 weeks of observation, the team watched as the laser channeled four lightning bolts upward, for a total of more than six hours of thunderstorms.
The use of intense laser pulses to guide beams is not new. It had already been put into practice previously under laboratory conditions. First in New Mexico, in 2004, and later in Singapore, in 2011. However, there was no evidence of the ability of this device to divert these discharges. The researchers of the new study argue that the effectiveness of their experiment could be due to “the repetition rate of the laser being higher.”
Alternative to Franklin rod
Until now, the only lightning rod we had was the Franklin rod, an electrically conductive metal mast that intercepts lightning strikes and guides them safely to the ground. This new invention, which has required an investment of approximately two million euros, could be a viable alternative, but we will still have to wait to see it.
The fact that the laser is one of a kind is both a big milestone and a big limitation, as it will take longer to make it cheaper and more practical. According to the researchers, more work of this type is still needed to confirm its usefulness, but they believe that this advance will open the door to the development of new lightning protection strategies.