Dan Drollette, Senior Editor
When scientists at Hydro-Quebec, one of Canada's largest power companies, want to see how a piece of electrical equipment holds up under the blast of a lightning bolt -- which can go as high as 300,000 amperes -- they plop it down in the middle of a field during a thunderstorm in Florida, the most lightning-prone part of North America. They place a rocket containing a spool of wire cable next to the test object; when launched, the wire unrolls to create a short-lived connection between test site and static-filled sky.
Once everything is in place, the researchers run for the safety of a nearby underground bunker.
Then they fire the rocket and hope they've timed their shot correctly. If they have, hundreds of millions of volts will descend from the cloud to travel at close to half the speed of light through their equipment. If they've miscalculated their shot, they must go back to the launchpad and do it all over again.
Scientists at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Varennes, Quebec, are working in conjunction with the Varennes-based division of Hydro-Quebec to develop a different approach to handling lightning. Instead of designing and field-testing equipment that is lightning-proof, their goal is to make a laser system that diverts lightning away from high-priority targets such as power lines, airports, space shuttles and nuclear power plants. To carry out their research, the team of physicists creates lightning at will under safe, controlled conditions in a specially designed high-voltage laboratory that resembles a 17-story-tall cube.