Scientists Steer Lightening Bolts With Lasers

On Monday, the journal Nature Photonics published a report in which scientists demonstrated that a laser beam could be used to guide the path of lightning. The report claims that powerful lasers could potentially reroute lightning strikes away from critical locations

Scientists Steer Lightening Bolts With Lasers
Image credit: Gabriel Tovar / Unsplash

Facts

  • On Monday, the journal Nature Photonics published a report in which scientists demonstrated that a laser beam could be used to guide the path of lightning. The report claims that powerful lasers could potentially reroute lightning strikes away from critical locations and be an alternative to lightning rods.
  • In experiments, scientists demonstrated this ability by firing powerful laser pulses from the top of a Swiss mountain during severe storms over several months in 2022.
  • Aurélien Houard, a physicist at École Polytechnique in Palaiseau, said, "metal rods are used almost everywhere to protect from lightning, but the area they can protect is limited to a few meters or tens of meters....the hope is to extend that protection to a few hundred meters..."
  • In the experiments, the scientists fired the laser pulses for approximately six and a half hours. The tower used during the test was struck 16 times by lightning. However, of the 16 strikes, only four occurred when the laser pulses were used.
  • The ability to attract lightning away from critical infrastructure or populated areas could prove life-saving and prevent infrastructure damage. In Britain alone, approximately 30-60 people die each year from lightning that strikes the ground 300k times each year and, in 2019, a lightning strike at a UK power station thrust 1.1M people into the dark in the UK's worst blackout on record.
  • Matteo Clerici, with the University of Glasgow, who was not on the research team, estimated that the experiments cost approximately $2.17B. If successful, the project could save money on weather-delayed projects like rocket launches and flight delays at weather-stricken airports.

Sources: Nature, Guardian, Euro, Daily Mail, and Engadget.

Narratives

  • Narrative A, as provided by Mainblades. Lightning strikes are a daily and dangerous occurrence, although ironically, research indicates that this will become a diminishing threat with climate change. For now, however, 40-100 lightning strikes happen every second across the globe. An airplane is struck by lightning about once in every thousand flight hours. It's prudent to explore laser technology as an upgrade over traditional metal lightning rods.
  • Narrative B, as provided by Popular Science. Weather alteration has a long and questionable history. US taxpayers paid $3.6M per year to fund the altering of the weather during the Vietnam War. In 1978, the Environmental Modification Convention went into effect banning weather modification during warfare. The treaty doesn't provide accountability or transparency, leaving the world's most dangerous powers to potentially violate the treaty. Without better regulation, this development is a slippery slope.