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Monday, April 14, 2008

Laser triggers electrical activity

A team of European scientists has deliberately triggered electrical activity in thunderclouds for the first time, according to a new paper in the latest issue of Optics Express, the Optical Society’s (OSA) open-access journal. They did this by aiming high-power pulses of laser light into a thunderstorm.

At the top of South Baldy Peak in New Mexico during two passing thunderstorms, the researchers used laser pulses to create plasma filaments that could conduct electricity akin to Benjamin Franklin's silk kite string. No air-to-ground lightning was triggered because the filaments were too short-lived, but the laser pulses generated discharges in the thunderclouds themselves.

"This was an important first step toward triggering lightning strikes with laser beams," says Jérôme Kasparian of the University of Lyon in France. "It was the first time we generated lighting precursors in a thundercloud." The next step of generating full-blown lightning strikes may come, he adds, after the team reprograms their lasers to use more sophisticated pulse sequences that will make longer-lived filaments to further conduct the lightning during storms.

Triggering lightning strikes is an important tool for basic and applied research because it enables researchers to study the mechanisms underlying lightning strikes. Moreover, triggered lightning strikes will allow engineers to evaluate and test the lightning-sensitivity of airplanes and critical infrastructure such as power lines.

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