It may sound like something straight-out of a sci-fi movie, but real-life scientists are busy on working on a super-precise laser tractor beam system to vary the path & direction of lightning.
There’s a practical reason behind it too: lightning strikes are the most natural cause for bushfires in Australia and increasing number of wildfires in the US, so a lightning diversion system has the potential to save lots of lives, keep wildlife safe & protect huge stretches of important ecosystems.
“We can imagine a future where this technology may induce discharge from passing lightning, helping to guide it to safe targets & reduce the danger of catastrophic fires” says physicist Vladlen Shvedov from the Australian National University.
The system makes use of a beam that mirrors the same process lightning uses, creating a path & select the target for an electric discharge.
Put simply, lightning is an electrical current bridging, the gap between a positively charged-point on the ground & a negatively charged-point at the base of a thundercloud (created by the extreme activity of frozen raindrops).
The laser beam proposed by researchers sets a spot for such an electric discharge to be released. In their experiments, they used graphene microparticles as mediator of the charge.
“Here, we propose & demonstrate an efficient approach for triggering, trapping & guiding electrical discharges in air. It’s supported the utilization of a low-power continuous wave vortex beam that traps & transports light absorbing particles in mid-air”, the team writes in their study.
Of course, researchers haven’t tested such a laser-induced air heating system with actual lightning out at the wild yet, but the smaller-scale results obtained in the lab suggest that electrical discharges like lightning are often exactly controlled.
“The experiment simulated similar atmospheric conditions to those found in real lightning.”, says Shvedov.
The technology works over long-distances & only need a low-power laser, which makes the system affordable, precise & easy to put together. The laser intensity used here is around thousand times less than in previous research.
While the term tractor-beam actually originates in science fiction and has since been adapted by shows like Star Trek. The laser system developed here fits the description. It’s moving lightning instead of the USS Enterprise but same principle applies.
Beyond lightning, same careful control of electrical discharge shown here could even be utilized in manufacturing & in medicine, to carefully remove cancerous tissue without invasive surgery, for instance.
“We have an invisible thread, a pen with which we can write light & control the discharge to within about one-tenth the width of a person’s hair.”, says physicist Andrey Miroshnichenko from the University of New South Wales, Canberra.
“We are really at the beginning of learning, what this completely new technology might mean.”
The research has been published in ‘Nature Communications‘.