New technology can potentially tame lightning

This technology may induce electrical discharge from passing lightning, helping to guide it to safe targets and reduce the risk of catastrophic fires

An international group of scientists, including from The Australian National University (ANU) and UNSW Canberra, are developing laser tractor beam technology to control the path and direction of lightning. The technology may allow scientists to control where it hits the ground, reducing the risk of catastrophic bushfires.

Scientists used a laser intensity a thousand times less than that in any previous attempts, meaning any potential technology to control lightning could be much cheaper, safer, and more precise.

The pillar works by trapping and heating graphene microparticles in the ambient air. By heating the graphene microparticles trapped in the beam, the team created the necessary electric breakdown and transmission conditions along the laser’s path using just a conventional low-intensity laser.

Co-researcher Dr. Vladlen Shvedov, from the ANU Research School of Physics, said the team used a laser beam that mirrors the same process as lightning and creates a path that directs electrical discharges to specific targets.

“The experiment simulated similar atmospheric conditions to those found in real lightning,” Dr. Shvedov said.

“We can imagine a future where this technology may induce electrical discharge from passing lightning, helping to guide it to safe targets and reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.”

Co-author Professor Andrey Miroshnichenko, from UNSW Canberra, said the discovery has critical applications for reducing bushfire risk. The tractor beam can be guided over long distances and allows for precision control of the lightning’s discharge.

“We have an invisible thread, a pen with which we can write light and control the electrical discharge to within about one-tenth the width of a human hair.”

“The discovery also has potential for the micro-scale control of electrical discharge in medicine and manufacturing applications.”

“The medical applications include optical scalpels for the removal of hard cancerous tissue to non-invasive surgery techniques.”

“We are really at the start of learning what this completely new technology might mean.”

Journal Reference:
  1. V. Shvedov et al. Optical beaming of electrical discharges, Nature Communications (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-19183-0

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