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Scientists successfully divert lightning strikes with laser device

Scientists have successfully diverted lightning strikes for the first time using a powerful laser beam directed at the sky. This looks to be the future of novel protection strategies.

Without recovering Thor’s hammer, this is probably the next best way of controlling the fierce phenomenon of lightning.

Scientists have demonstrated a first in the world of photonic studies, successfully diverting the natural path of a lightning strike by pointing a powerful laser beam towards the heavens.

The field study, detailed in the journal Nature Photonics, confirmed long-held suspicions that intense laser pulses firing thousands of times a second may be able to intercept these thunderous discharges and displace them.

While metal poles called lightning rods have guided volts from rooftops into the ground since 1752, lasers reportedly generate strong beams of ionised air – called plasma – able to conduct lightning over far vaster regions. Eat your heart out Benjamin Franklin.

Outside view of the Laser Lightning Rod in action in the evening
Credit: TRUMPF

The state of the art device developed by Munich-based manufacturer TRUMPF stands 8m long, 1.5m wide, and wouldn’t look out of place in a sci-fi disaster movie. Mounted at a Swisscom telecommunications tower atop the summit of Mount Santis, it was here that the technology’s triumph was recorded.

Precariously located 2,500m above sea level, the facility is typically struck by lightning around 100 times a year, making it the perfect spot to test the laser’s effectiveness… and/or build a vampire estate.

Over the course of a three month period, from June to September 2021, the laser was activated every time a storm was forecasted.

Scientists compared the data collected pre and post installment of the laser, and observed that the device deflected four bolts in around six hours of operation. All instances were corroborated through the presence of electromagnetic waves synonymous with lightning strikes.

High speed cameras also captured the moment the beam worked its magic, with a remarkable snap showing the tower’s beam entwined in a lightning bolt originating 60m away.

‘From the first lightning event using the laser, we found that the discharge could follow the beam for nearly 60m before reaching the tower, meaning that it increased the radius of the protection surface from 120m (using lightning rods) to 180m,’ explained study co-author Jean-Pierre Wolf in a statement.

By honing the technology and extending the device to 10m, Wolf believes the laser could eventually extend its protective range by 500m.

With the proof of principle phase now complete, it will be interesting to see whether these lasers can usurp traditional lightning rods commercially.

If prices are competitive, scientists say it could revolutionise the way airports, launch sites, and other industries vulnerable to lightning strikes protect their businesses and staff. Considering an estimated 24,000 people are killed by lightning every year, this is a problem that definitely needs addressing.

It’s about time photonic studies had another watershed moment like this.