The lightning rod hasn't exactly needed improvement since its inception by Ben Franklin in 1749, but that isn't stopping a French research team's efforts to replace the charge-catching metal poles with frickin' lasers.
Schemes for employing lasers as means of conducting lightning have been kicked around since the 1990s. The idea was to fire Terrawatt-class lasers skyward in femtosecond bursts. This energy would ionise the air in the beam's path, creating an easier route for the lighting to travel. Problem was, researchers could never get the systems to actually induce a lightning strike or, you know, direct the lighting at all.
But a French team from ENSTA ParisTech and led by André Mysyrowicz have made surprising progress in testing a new trailer-sized laser. As New Scientist explains,
In one experiment in a military lab in Toulouse, France, they set up a high-voltage discharge with two possible targets about 2.5 metres away. With the laser off, the artificial lightning always hit the closer target. But with the laser on, generating a filament path to the farther target, the discharge went where it was directed.
In a second experiment, Mysyrowicz's team aimed the laser beam across 50 metres of a lab, passing 5 to 20 centimetres from a lightning-producing electrode and an oppositely charged electrode. Usually, lightning jumps straight from electrode to electrode, but with the laser on, the discharge jumped to the laser filament and followed it before jumping to the second electrode.
The system is still in the early design and testing stages. It's next hurdle will be to control the lightning without contacts, which aren't generally found in clouds. [AIP Advances via e! Science News, New Scientist via Neatorama - Image: Daniel Loretto / Shutterstock]