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Laser ‘lightning rod’ could improve storm safety

Laser Lightning Rod in action.
TRUMPF/Martin Stollberg
Laser Lightning Rod in action.

Lightning causes billions of dollars of damage each year and can result in injury or death, but people still use 18th century technology to guard against it.

A new paper in the journal Nature Photonics offers a more modern alternative: laser lightning rods.

Lightning rods and filament-trailing rockets give lightning a path to follow that’s safer for humans, buildings and critical infrastructure, such as power stations, airports and launchpads.

“One of the big problems of lightning is that, not only can it occasionally kill people – which is obviously really, really bad – but it can have severe impacts on infrastructure,” said ASU meteorologist Randy Cerveny, who was not involved with the research.

Lasers can do that too, by changing atmospheric characteristics like ionization. More importantly, they can be used multiple times per storm.

“It provides potentially a repetitive type of situation where we can turn the laser on, charge the sky to provide a pathway for lightning to come down on the ground and continually do that during the course of the entire storm,” said Cerveny.

During 6 hours of thunderstorms, researchers fired a thousand laser pulses per second near a telecommunications tower on the Säntis Mountain in northeastern Switzerland.

They successfully diverted four lightning discharges.

This marked the first successful test of the car-sized laser, which can create its virtual lightning up to a kilometer away, outside of laboratory conditions.

Cerveny says the laser could have “big implications for safety.”

“The ability to potentially control lightning, at least in very limited fashion in limited areas, is exciting. And it can be very, very useful,” he said. 

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Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.