The laser lightning rod experiment on the Santis in Switzerland (Source: TRUMPF/Martin Stollberg) © ANSA/Ansa
A powerful laser aimed at the sky can act as a lightning rod. This is demonstrated by an experiment conducted in the Swiss Alps, the first to be successfully performed in the real world outside of the controlled conditions of the laboratory. The result – which could pave the way for more efficient methods of protecting critical infrastructure such as power plants, airports and launch bases – is published in the journal Nature Photonics by researchers on the Laser Lightning Rod project, led by Jean-Pierre Wolf of the University of Geneva .
The most common lightning protection device to date is the Franklin rod, a metal pole that intercepts lightning strikes and guides them safely to the ground. It has been hypothesized for years that a laser beam aimed at the sky could be a good alternative, since its intense beam of light can ionize the air (ie, cause oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere to release free-moving electrons). • Create channels of high electrical conductivity that act as lightning fast lanes.
To prove this hypothesis, the researchers conducted a series of experiments on Mount Santis in north-eastern Switzerland, where a 123-metre-tall telecommunications tower stands and is hit by an average of 100 lightning strikes a year. In the summer of 2021, near the tower, they installed a laser the size of a large car, capable of emitting up to a thousand ultra-short pulses per second: the laser, used during storms for a total of more than six hours, he managed four Deflecting lightning, as demonstrated by the high-frequency electromagnetic waves generated by the lightning themselves. One of the deflected flashes was even captured by high-speed cameras on July 24, 2021: The images show that the electrical discharge followed the path of the laser for more than 50 meters.
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