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European researchers for the first time learned how to ward off lightning strikes using lasers.

Published: 2023-01-17

Lightning rods have been used to direct lightning strikes for literally centuries, but now scientists have demonstrated much more advanced technology. European researchers have presented the Laser Lightning Rod (LLR) system, which allows using a laser to literally control dangerous elements over large areas.

Lightning is one of the most high-energy natural phenomena. They can cause damage to buildings and vehicles, power outages, fires and death of people and animals.

For centuries, the best protection against them was metal lightning rods fixed on high-rise buildings - they literally attracted deadly blows to themselves, after which the discharges quite harmlessly went into the ground. However, such designs have a limited radius of protection. According to Newatlas, a lightning rod 10 meters long can only protect an area within a radius of 10 meters. To protect an airport or a wind farm, lightning rods would be simply gigantic in size.

Now, thanks to European experts who have introduced Laser Lightning Rod (LLR) technology, it is possible to literally "pave the path" of least resistance for lightning, using lasers directed into the sky into a thunderstorm. Such a system is much more efficient than lightning rods.

According to one of the authors of the study, Jean-Pierre Wolf, a powerful laser is able to ionize nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the air, which then release free electrons. This ionized air becomes a conductor of electricity.

To demonstrate the concept, a laser system was developed with an average power of 1 kW, capable of generating 1000 pulses per second, releasing a joule of energy with each pulse. The system was placed on top of Mount Sentis in the Swiss Alps, next to a tower that "attracts" about 100 lightning bolts annually.

From June to September 2021, the team tested the system during thunderstorms. A skyward laser was located near the top of the tower - scientists were trying to "pull" the lightning from its usual lightning rod. During that summer, lightning struck the tower only four times - of course, the system worked. According to Wolf, it made it possible to provide a protected area radius of up to 120-180 m. The idea of using lasers as lightning rods has long been studied by scientists around the world, and good results have long been obtained in laboratory conditions. However, this is the first time the technology has been demonstrated to work in the real world.

The ultimate goal of the project is to increase the length of the laser lightning rod from the current 10m to around 500m.

The results of the study were published in Nature Photonics, and you can learn more about the project from the video. Watch video on TikTok