In a development that would look right at home in a sci-fi disaster movie, researchers have developed a laser beam that can deflect electricity.
Pointing skyward from the majestic Mount Saints in northeastern Switzerland, the so-called laser lightning rod has been hailed by its creators as the greatest storm-prevention measure since Benjamin Franklin.
One of America’s founding fathers, Franklin, invented the lightning rod in 1752. Since then, metal masts have remained the most effective form of protection.
But while a lightning rod is limited in how far its protection can reach by its height (for example, a 10-meter-high rod will cover a 10-meter radius), laser-based solutions are broad. Promises to work for areas.
In findings published in the journal Nature Photonics, the researchers revealed that their new mast was able to deflect four lightning strikes several dozen meters – even in extremely harsh weather.
The laser lightning rod – which measured 1.5 meters wide, eight meters long, and weighed more than three tons – was placed on top of Mount Santis, which is about 2,500 meters above sea level.
There sits a Swisscom telecommunications tower, equipped with an ordinary lightning rod.
Over the course of three months, from June to September 2021, the researchers monitored the performance of the upgraded laser rod, which was activated each time a storm was predicted to protect the tower.
Orleans Howard, project co-ordinator at France’s Laboratoire d’Optique Appliquee, said: “The aim was to see if there was a difference with or without the laser.
“We compared data collected when a laser filament was projected onto the tower – and when the tower was naturally struck by lightning.”
Other institutions involved in the research included the University of Geneva and Munich-based manufacturing specialist TRUMPF, which designed the laser.
How does a laser lightning rod work?
The purpose of a conventional lightning rod is to attract the lightning bolt and then conduct the voltage to ground.
A laser lightning rod works on the same principle as guiding a bolt, but instead of using a metal pole, it does so by creating channels of ionized air using its laser beam.
This happens when the air molecules become electrically charged, giving them a conductive quality similar to metal.
Study author Jean-Pierre Wolfe of the University of Geneva explained: “When very high-powered laser pulses are emitted into the atmosphere, very sharp light filaments form within the beam.
“These filaments ionize nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the air, which release electrons that are free to move. This ionized air, called plasma, becomes an electrical conductor.”
What happens next?
It is hoped that the laser lightning rod can be used not only on its own, but to extend upwards from a traditional mast and increase the size of the area it protects.
After almost a year of analysis, the team concluded that the laser rod beam could guide the bolt’s ejection up to about 60 meters before reaching the Swisscom tower – a dramatic increase in the area of protection, Professor Wolff said. .
In the long term, it can extend a 10-meter-high stick up to 500 meters.
Scientists say it could change the way airports, launch sites and other critical infrastructure are protected from lightning strikes, which kill an estimated 24,000 people each year.
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