Jan 17, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Laser Pointers Can Redirect Lightning - But Don't Try It at Home!

Most people know by now that laser pointers have a useful purpose as an aid in presentations and a fun in purpose driving cats crazy. Most also know the dangers of laser pointers – they are harmful to the eyes when pointed directly at them, they can confuse law enforcement officers into firing their weapons, and they can distract or temporarily blind airline pilots. Today we add one more interesting yet potentially harmful activity to the list of things you probably shouldn‘t do with a laser pointer – aim it at a lightning bolt. Wait … what?

Is this the future of lightning storms?

“Lightning has fascinated and terrified humankind since time immemorial. Based on satellite data, the total lightning flash rate worldwide—including cloud-to-ground and cloud lightning—is estimated to be between 40 and 120 flashes per second, causing considerable damage and casualties. The documented number of lightning fatalities is well above 4,000 and lightning damages amount to billions of dollars every year.”

The paper “Laser-guided lightning,” published in the journal Nature Photonics, opens with an homage to the Franklin lightning rod. It has been over 270 years since Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod. In that time, it has proven to be the mousetrap of lightning safety inventions – nothing comes close to the simplicity and efficiency of the Franklin rod … a tall, pointed iron pole on a tall structure or hill connected to a thick wire with the other end buried in the ground. Lightning hits the rod and travels down the rod and wire into the ground where it is dispersed safely away from humans and flammable object – the classic definition of “grounded.” The simplicity of the Franklin rod is also its limitation – it must be located near where the lightning strikes. While they can look nice at the top of a church spire or tall building, it is nearly impossible and esthetically disastrous to put them everywhere in order to protect us from the lightning bolts that strike around the world 100 times every second. That is why scientists have sought for years to build a better lightning rod.

“A method to initiate lightning discharges with a small rocket trailing a long, grounded conducting wire was demonstrated by Newman et al. in 1965. In contrast to the classical lightning rod, which is intended to be struck by lightning that approaches the protected structure, the rocket-and-wire technique is intended to trigger lightning artificially. Rapidly inserting a wire into the strong electric fields near the ground below a thundercloud results in a field at the tip of the wire sufficiently enhanced to produce electrical breakdown. If the small rocket is fired at the right moment when conditions for lightning are met, this method can initiate lightning with a success rate of up to 90% (ref. 5). However, it requires expendable rockets and wires, the falling debris of which presents a danger.”

In what sounds like a plan right out of a Roadrunner vs. Wile E. Coyote cartoon, scientists tried to control lightning by making lightning, then shoot at it with a rocket trailing a wire AT THE RIGHT MOMENT! Oh, and those people allegedly saved by this contraption are in danger of getting hit on the head by debris falling from said contraption. Did the box the rocket and wire came in say “Acme”? Next came a plan which sounded like it was inspired by the original and best “Ghostbusters” movie:

“The idea of using a laser to trigger lightning was first suggested by Ball6. A first attempt to trigger and guide natural lightning with lasers was made by Uchida et al. in 1999 using a combination of three lasers with kilojoule energy to form a 2-m-long plasma spark.”

While reading that description, did you all yell “Don’t cross the streams!”? Good, because we wouldn’t want to see all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light in total protonic reversal. That brings us to the latest attempt to build a better lightning rod. Physicist Aurélien Houard, from the French National Center for Scientific Research's Applied Optics Laboratory in Paris, and a team of scientists spent the summer of 2021 camped on top of Säntis mountain in northeastern Switzerland next to a tall lightning-attracting telecommunications tower. There they waited patiently for thunderstorms, then beamed short, intense laser pulses into the clouds. Did it work?

“This concept of trying to control lightning, guide lightning, or trigger lightning with lasers, it’s not very new.”

Houard lowered expectations by noting that others have been trying this technique for decades and failing. He and his team felt the failure were caused by laser pointer technology being to primitive and the locations chosen for the tests being wrong. They felt they now had powerful lasers and an excellent location with an excellent lightning attractor and excellent video equipment to capture their attempts. The idea is actually based on sound physics - intense laser bursts create long filaments of plasma (ionized gas) which heat air molecules and leave behind channels of low-density, conductive air which lightning can follow just as it follows a wire into the ground. A German company provided lasers capable of blasting 1,000 pulses per second to their specifications. A dozen researchers sat on Säntis mountain and waited. On July 24, 2021, they got a clear night suitable for photographing. They aimed the lasers toward the top of the mountain’s lightning rod and said “Benjamin Franklin” three times. Not really, but they would have if they knew it would help. Instead they waited and watched.

It's a good idea to watch where you are standing before trying this.

“Only one of these four laser events occurred during a relatively clear sky on 24 July 2021 at 16:24 UTC, which allowed us to record the path of the lightning discharge from two directions with two high-speed cameras located 1.4 and 5 km from the tower, respectively. Snapshots of this event are displayed in Fig. 2. They show that the lightning strike initially follows the laser path over most of the initial 50 m distance. Notice that the discharge is not completely straight along this initial segment, as it would be when triggering lightning with a rocket trailing a wire.”

The photos can be seen here. Before you grab your laser pointer and go running out into the thunderstorm to save your neighborhood, Houard gives some good reasons why you can’t, let alone shouldn’t, try this at home. Your laser pointer is nowhere near being powerful enough to create plasma filaments. And even if it could, it wouldn’t be useful except for fancy experiments. In order to provide protection, the lasers must be powerful enough to trigger the lightning and then guide all the way to the ground – not just 50 meters like in the Säntis mountain demonstration. Houard tells Inverse that the team is working on more powerful lasers that will create longer filaments and eventually trigger lightning. They will then come down from the mountain and test it procedure at lower levels and eventually on flat lands where lightning still strikes frequently.

In the meantime, just as you do in your attic, garage or basement – stick to the tried-and-true lightning mousetrap called the Franklin rod. And keep your laser pointer in the conference room, your cat’s room or wherever you listen to Pink Floyd.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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