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Laser Triggers Thunderclouds

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SOCORRO, N.M., April 14, 2008 -- 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.
Storm clouds gather near Langmuir Lab in Socorro, N.M. A team of European scientists fired ultrashort laser pulses into thunderclouds near the lab to trigger electrical activity, a first step toward creating man-made lightning. (Photo Copyright ©CNRS Photothèque/Claude Delhaye)
"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 -- generating full-blown lightning strikes -- may come, he said, 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. Triggered lightning strikes will also allow engineers to evaluate and test the lightning sensitivity of airplanes and critical infrastructure such as power lines.

Although lightning strikes have been the subject of scientific investigation dating back to the 18th century and Benjamin Franklin's kite experiment, they are still not fully understood. Scientists have been able to trigger lightning strikes since the 1970s by shooting small rockets into thunderclouds that spool long wires connected to the ground, but typically only 50 percent of rocket launches actually trigger a lightning strike. The use of laser technology would make the process quicker, more efficient and cost-effective and would be expected to open a number of new applications.

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.
In the experiment "control tower," ultrafast cameras are ready to observe guided lightning strikes that may be triggered by the Teramobile laser. (Photo Copyright ©CNRS Photothèque/Claude Delhaye)
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.

Kasparian conducted the research with his colleagues at CNRS, the University of Lyon, the University of Geneva, École Polytechnique and ENSTA in Palaiseau, France, the Free University of Berlin and the Dresden-Rossendorf Research Center as part of the Teramobile project.

The work was funded jointly by the CNRS, DFG, the French and German ministries of foreign affairs, Agence Nationale de la Recherche, Fonds national suisse de la recherche scientifique, and the Swiss Secrétariat d'État à l'Éducation et à la Recherche.

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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Apr 2008
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