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Researchers get lasers to control lightning


French scientists have shown in a series of lab experiments that they can exert long-range control over exactly where bolts of lightning hit using laser-induced plasma filaments. Repeat after me: “Muahahahaha!”
In principle, controlling lightning really isn’t that hard because it’s an utterly predictable phenomena. Or at least, some things about it are predictable. Lightning, being incredibly lazy, will always take the easiest route from Point A to Point B, where there’s a large differential in electrical charge between those two points. When we’re talking about weather-induced lightning, Point A is usually in a cloud and Point B is often on the ground, and a lighting bolt will take the path of least resistance all the way down, whether it’s through the air or through something more conductive, like a tree or a building.
So, the secret to controlling where lightning strikes is to just make the path to the place you want it to hit the easiest route for it to take. You can do this with rockets trailing conductive wires, or you can do it by using powerful lasers to carve out conductive channels straight through the air. At least, in principle you can do this, but for the first time, a group of French doctors of evil have managed to make it work in a lab, successfully redirecting a bolt of lightning away from a nearby electrode to a more distant one with a powerful femtosecond laser pulse. A powerful enough laser can strip electrons from atoms in the air, creating what are called plasma filaments. These plasma filaments ionize the air in the path of the laser, and keep the air ionized even after the laser shuts off, providing a channel that lighting will follow.
Getting this to work in a controlled environment is no small feat, but it’ll take some major ramping up to develop a system that’ll work outdoors over the distances required to control real life lightning bolts, but the researchers mention the potential for “empty[ing] electrically charged clouds preventing lightning stroke to hit sensitive building or facilities.” They don’t mention where they’d empty all that lightning too, but this is probably the time to try to get on France’s good side.
Paper, via New Scientist
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