The best way to prevent birds from flocking in airport skies? A robot falcon, obviously. The best way to divert lightning from airports and power stations? A giant 3-ton laser rivaling the power of Zeus himself, of course.
When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod nearly 300 years ago, he had no way of knowing that we would one day use it to snatch raw power from the sky, rerouting its path to protect massive metal flying machines. And rather than a small metal rod, it would be a monstrous green laser capable of producing blasts of infrared light 1,000 times per second.
Well, scientists in Switzerland are now doing just that. This month, those scientists released a study in Nature Photonics detailing their successful steering of lightning bolts with lasers for the first time in the field. Through this study, researchers demonstrated the potential for laser-based lightning protection systems at airports, launchpads, and other tall buildings.
“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,” said Aurélien Houard, a physicist at École Polytechnique in Palaiseau. “The hope is to extend that protection to a few hundred meters if we have enough energy in the laser.”
More than a billion bolts strike Earth every year, each bolt carrying heat five times hotter than the surface of the sun and enough power to stop a human heart. Lightning causes thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of injuries, and tens of billions of dollars in damage annually.
Scientists Successfully Re-route Lightning Using Car-Sized Laser
In an effort to lessen the extensive damage, Houard and his team pushed a powerful 26-foot-long laser to the top of the Säntis mountain in Switzerland. Once there, they launched a battle against Mother Nature herself.
Parking the laser next to a telecoms tower that receives around 100 strikes per year, they waited for storms to gather. With thunder and lightning rippling through the air, they pointed the machine at the clouds, firing rapid laser pulses into the sky for more than six hours.
Filming the path of lightning using high-speed cameras, scientists discovered that their laser was a success. Rather than its anticipated trajectory, the bolt followed the laser path for about 50 meters, steering it away from the tower.
The scientists proved that humankind can protect itself from one of nature’s deadliest weapons under the right circumstances. The laser, however, does come with two drawbacks. First, it’s powerful enough to damage the eyes of overflying pilots. Additionally, the laser is extremely expensive to construct and operate.
That said, scientists remain hopeful that it could still prove useful in lightning protection. Officials could install lasers in the no-fly areas around airports and launchpads, eliminating the risk to pilots. And though they’re expensive, they’re highly reliable, making them potentially worth the cost.
“The cost of the laser system is very high compared with that of a simple rod,” said Professor Manu Haddad, director of the Lightning Laboratory at Cardiff University. “However, lasers could be a more reliable way to direct the lightning discharge. This may be important for the lightning protection of critical ground installations and equipment.”