Monday, April 14, 2008

Laser triggered lightning

Reported from Scientists have used ultrashort laser pulses to trigger electrical activity in thunderclouds, a first step toward creating man-made lightning.

In a modern-day take on Benjamin Franklin's experiment during a storm more than 200 years ago with a kite, a key and a silk ribbon to prove electricity exists in the atmosphere, the French, Swiss and German scientists aimed high-power pulses of laser light into two passing thunderstorms at the top of South Baldy Peak in New Mexico. The laser pulses created plasma filaments that could conduct electricity. No air-to-ground lightning was triggered because the plasma filaments were too short-lived, but the laser pulses generated discharges in the thunderclouds themselves, the scientists said.

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

The idea of using lasers to trigger lightning strikes was first suggested more than 30 years ago, but until recently lasers were not powerful enough to generate the long plasma channels needed. The current generation of more powerful pulsed lasers, like the one developed by Kasparian's team, may change that because they can form a large number of plasma filaments -- ionized channels of molecules in the air that act like conducting wires extending into the thundercloud.

Kasparian and his colleagues involved in the Teramobile project, an international program initiated by the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France and the German Research Foundation (DFG), built a powerful mobile femtosecond-terawatt laser capable of generating long plasma channels by firing ultrashort laser pulses. They chose to test their laser at the Langmuir Laboratory in New Mexico, which is equipped to measure atmospheric electrical discharges. Sitting at the top of 10,500-ft South Baldy Peak, this laboratory is in an ideal location because its altitude places it close to the high thunderclouds.

During the tests, the research team quantified the electrical activity in the clouds after discharging laser pulses. Statistical analysis showed that their laser pulses indeed enhanced the electrical activity in the thundercloud where it was aimed—in effect they generated small local discharges located at the position of the plasma channels.

The limitation of the experiment, though, was that they could not generate plasma channels that lived long enough to conduct lightning all the way to the ground. The plasma channels dissipated before the lightning could travel more than a few meters along them. The team is currently looking to increase the power of the laser pulses by a factor of 10 and use bursts of pulses to generate the plasmas much more efficiently.

The paper, "Electric Events Synchronized With Laser Filaments in Thunderclouds," appears in the April 14 issue of Optics Express, the Optical Society of America's (OSA) open-access journal.

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