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Science Technology

Laser Triggers Electrical Activity In Thunderstorm 167

esocid writes "A team of European scientists has deliberately triggered electrical activity in thunderclouds for the first time 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. No air-to-ground lightning was triggered because the filaments were too short-lived, but the laser pulses generated discharges in the thunderclouds themselves up to several meters long. 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. Research into laser-triggered lightning has been going on for some years. Until now, no experiment was able to produce a long enough plasma channel to affect the electrical activity inside clouds."
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Laser Triggers Electrical Activity In Thunderstorm

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  • by billy901 ( 1158761 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @08:22PM (#23071820) Homepage
    If the cost of the lasers and the energy for them didn't cost to much, it may be a possibility in the future to create energy using lightning strikes. Due to the infrequency of lightning, no one has ever made a great effort to try this. If the technology is cheap enough, this would be a great test and possibly a future energy source.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      And how do you control and store such power? You know, it can be really hard to stop a spark that has traveled thousands of meters just to reach the earth...
    • by RobertM1968 ( 951074 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @08:32PM (#23071902) Homepage Journal

      Well, the other issue comes from storing that much electricity delivered in such a short period of time...

      I think the problem may be the methods being used... I would think it more logical to try to drain such energy from the sky on a slower basis than to try to capture a lightning bolt...

      But then again, I am no scientist...

      • Very high voltage capacitors could possibly be used. With the laser technique, I would bet they could control how much energy they pulled out to some extent. Maybe not though - it is lightning.

        But if you dropped a bolt into a big, high-voltage capacitor, you could then drain it off into something else for longer storage or use. Maybe.

        • Close. Supercapacitors are getting around to making such a thing workable.

          • by NeverVotedBush ( 1041088 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @10:15PM (#23072714)
            Not exactly. What the "super" in supercapacitors means is that they have extremely high capacitance and can store a large amount of charge.

            The rub is that they cannot handle much in the way of voltage. Typically in the 2 to 4 volts range depending on the type. So if you want to store a lot of voltage, you need to put them in series and that lowers the capacitance back down.

            Supercaps are not suitable for high voltage. The reason you don't see them powering electric cars instead of batteries is the voltage issue. Manufacturers and researchers are working on that but for now, the voltage a supercap can stand is very low.
            • Why exactly is it necessary to directly capture the energy from lighting bolts as electricity?

              Guide the lightning into water, use the steam to spin a turbine and you've got electricity.
              Or use the heated water as a source to run a stirling engine.

              The only real obstacle is getting a hold of enough lightning to make the setup profitable.
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by evanbd ( 210358 )

              No, the issue with supercaps isn't voltage, when it comes to cars. (I'll ignore catching lightning; it's a bad power source for lots of reasons.) A few in series gets into the range that power electronics can work with easily enough. No, the problem with supercaps is that they're still heavier than even lead acid batteries, and expensive. They're getting cheaper and better, though -- and last I looked into it, there were pieces of them in labs that were competitive with batteries. The best ones I've fo

              • I'm hopeful we'll see them beginning to appear in commercial applications in a few years, though I imagine the first place they get used won't be cars.

                The biggest problem I see in using large capacitors in cars is when you get into an accident. I wouldn't want to be the fireman cutting the car open with the jaws of life that accidentally discharges the cap.
      • Picture this, you could spend Petawatts of energy in two seconds to have lightning strike precisely where the leader of country X is standing.
        Can you? You will.
        • precisely where the leader of country X is standing.

          Did you have a particular country in mind? :-)

          I'd rather not say what country I would have in mind - if I were so inclined, that is... which I am not... really.

          • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

            by Anonymous Coward
            Thank you for subscribing to the Terrorist Watch List.

            If you did not intend to suscribe please click here to unsubscribe.
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)


            Is that really you?

            There's plenty of thunder around Harare this time of year :o)

            Please stand under this tree.

      • by dbIII ( 701233 )

        I would think it more logical to try to drain such energy from the sky on a slower basis

        The Amataur Scientist column in Scientific American had an article on how to run a little electric motor made with plastic disk and used a kite to get the potential difference to drive it. The article was from a back issue probably in the early 1970's - back when they had the Honeywell ads on the back of animal sculptures made from electronic components.

      • You can't store that kind of power. The best you can do is convert it into joule heating to boil some water to power a heat engine.
    • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @08:56PM (#23072142) Journal
      The problem is not lack of( lightening strikes all over the planet every minute). The problem is getting it to hit in the same place over and over as well as being able to handle the amount of power that comes with it. If this can be used in areas that get lots of strikes, it may be possible to direct them to a collection spot. Btw, some good spots for collections would be mountain tops. Here in colorado, being on top a 14er in the mid-afternoon can be challenging. We actualy get a lot of fried texans and Californians each year (caused by an inability to understand that when you are above tree-line, you are the most electrically conductive item there).
    • by MBCook ( 132727 ) <> on Monday April 14, 2008 @09:04PM (#23072184) Homepage

      I agree with my sibling comments that this is almost certainly infeasible. Storage would be a nightmare, trying to suddenly absorb all that energy.

      However, the first thing that came to my mind was radio. Protecting antennas (especially the large ones like AM broadcast) I'd imagine is quite tough and expensive. You are going to take hits, and you have to have everything designed to deflect as much energy as possible. You obviously don't want your millions and millions of dollars of equipment getting fried. The insurance on all this can't be cheap.

      Yet if you could use a laser to drain local clouds near your antennas... you might be able to seriously mitigate possible strikes or at least the damage they might cause.

      Heck, if you could make this really cheap (obviously difficult, especially given laser power requirements) you could protect kids sports events and such that might otherwise get cancelled.

      In the midwest, sudden and STRONG thunderstorms are quite normal during parts of the year. I could see this being useful.

      Heck, synch the pulses up to the local radio station as an advertisement. "LAZR 102.7, now protecting you from lightning. Shows start when the thunder does!"

      (be afraid of NPR pledge drive week)

      • Sure, because nothing could possibly go wrong if we start wide scale deliberate tampering with thunderstorm activity.
      • Look, at this time, there is little chance of CAPTURING ALL of the energy with today's technology (from what little I know). But providing a break water is very different mater. We have the ability to handle all the energy, just not the storage. So, we simply run it into resisters, and lose some of the energy as heat. Heck with recent idea of a new thermoelectric generator, it might be possible to not have to just dump all the energy.
      • by Belial6 ( 794905 )
        You know, I thought it was bad enough that we decided to give up on having schools educate kids in favor of kids sports, but now you want mess with the weather for it too? Seriously, high school football is just not that important.
    • The reason this hasn't been tried commercially is that there aren't commercial quantities of energy available. A bit of googling yields a figure of 250kWh per strike, or less than my personal energy bill for a quarter. It's a bit like shuffling your shoes on the floor to generate static electricity - most of the energy goes towards heating up your shoes, not transfering electrons.
  • by Theatetus ( 521747 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @08:28PM (#23071858) Journal shooting a laser at a big storm cloud trying to generate lightning. None whatsoever.

  • Lightning rocketry (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cojsl ( 694820 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @08:28PM (#23071864) Homepage
    A research site in Florida fires rockets trailing a wire into thunderstorms to stimulate lightning strikes: [] Video on this page: []
  • OK, you may need more electricity to drive the laser than one can get from a discharge, but how about harvesting the clouds?
  • From TFA:

    Because the plasma channels were too short, the electrical discharge was only able to travel a few meters before dissipating. The team believes that, by increasing the laser pulses by a factor of 10, they would be able to create longer plasma channels, in order to trigger air-to-ground electrical discharges.

    Just be sure you surround the laser with some sort of Faraday cage...we'd hate to see your experiment succeed...only to lose your expensive high-power laser to a lightning strike... ^_^

    • I would think you could use a grounded turning mirror and/or a grounded aperture to shoot through.

      You could also use a beam expander and condenser over a distance to lower the power density such that you didn't make a conducting channel that would provide an electrical disconnect.

      Still, this is very cool stuff!
  • As cool as that would be, I'd rather have Mjolnir and use that to control the storms...

    Just a thought...

    Though I didnt write this list (I DO have more of a life than that!), I thought it cool...

  • Just go fly a kite... and don't forget your keys!

  • by Bovius ( 1243040 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @08:31PM (#23071888)
    Sometimes I think these discoveries aren't the result of due scientific process. Sometimes I think a bunch of researchers were sitting around a break room table and said, "Let's shoot lasers at clouds!" Shooting anything with a laser to see what happens is a noble scientific endeavor.
  • ...make a lower resistance path between cloud and ground...

    Either with a wire on a rocket or a lower density column of heated air...

    So, that lowers the threshold of charge differential required for the discharge.
    • They've been using the "wire on a rocket" scenario in Florida for quite some time to "experiment" with lightning...

      Dunno what they learned from it, or what they are doing now... just know I saw it on some science special (Discovery Channel, or Weather Channel or someplace like that).

  • After reading this article, and doing a little research, I discovered some facts proving that with a little hard work and a little development, they may be able to reverse engineer technology like this to extract energy from storms. This would be useful for to stop lightning from hitting major cities. Some places uses planes to drop a gas into storm clouds to stop storms, it is very risky, but also makes tornadoes a little more mild, believe it or not.
    • . . .means. "Reverse Engineering", I think is not the right term here. I think "applications" might be a better term, possibly. That is, you can possibly apply the scientific principle that has been discovered in this experiment to technologies such as you describe - e.g. using it to shield cities/property from damage.
  • Sharks? (Score:1, Funny)

    by ruiner13 ( 527499 )
    How did they get the sharks with the friggin' laser beams into the clouds?
    • easy, flying sharks!
      • Well, sharks can't breath in the atmosphere, so they'd also have to be zombies.

        Is there anything cooler or more deadly than lightning-generating flying zombie sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads?
  • a new tool for America's War on Drugs! []

    Yeah, I don't listen to me either.
  • There are simpler ways. Ben Franklin used a kite to good effect. Long metal poles in the middle of a field also work.

    • by grumling ( 94709 )
      And Mr. Franklin was nearly excommunicated for messing around with the "natural order" of things. It was God's will that your house was struck by lightning. Perhaps you could have been a little more sincere in your prayers?

      I think I'll let lightning do whatever God wants and keep my soul in good shape. Thanks just the same.
  • Weather Machine (Score:2, Interesting)

    This makes me think of the storm generator in Red Alert 2. If could something even remotely like that working...
  • Huh? (Score:1, Redundant)

    Why hasn't this been tagged whatcouldpossiblygowrong yet?

  • Mwahahaha! (Score:5, Funny)

    by patternmatch ( 951637 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @08:48PM (#23072062)

    Triggering lightning strikes is an important tool for basic and applied research

    Don't forget supervilliany.

  • by the eric conspiracy ( 20178 ) * on Monday April 14, 2008 @08:50PM (#23072078)
    Sounds like there could be a Darwin Award in this.

  • Better hope this technology doesn't make its way to Redmond, if it does we will have a lot more than flying chairs to worry about...
  • I'm still waiting for the television broadcast on every channel to say the mad scientist is holding the world hostage.
  • by __aaclcg7560 ( 824291 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @08:56PM (#23072144)
    A bunch of basement dwellers will rush outside with their mini laser lights to either get zapped by lightning or busted by the police for being terrorists when a plane flies overhead. Their sacrifices for science will be greatly appreciated by the community.
    • Their sacrifices for science will be greatly appreciated by the community.

      And they all will be honored with Darwin award.

  • First 'Run Google App Engine Apps On Amazon's Cloud'.

    Now European scientists are shooting the sky with their laser producing long enough plasma channel to affect the electrical activity inside clouds.

    DOS attacks ?
  • I remember watching a video about a guy who shot homemade rockets, trainling a long thin wire, into thunderclouds. Pretty cool.

    Apparently, the exhaust and the wire both triggered lightning strikes that traveled down the wire and/or exhaust plume to the ground.

    Pretty neat.
  • This could go a long way towards allowing us to harness the power of lightning! We could build lightning farms in areas where lightning often forms, and find a way to store the power.
  • It looks like Destro has finally succeeded in getting the Weather Dominator [] online...
    • by EEPROMS ( 889169 )
      Harnessing the power from lightening is a great idea until you look at the logistics. To give you an idea its a bit like connecting a huge magical nuclear power plant to the grid that appears at random for 5-10 minutes and never at the spot.
  • If I'm not mistaken that mountain is in the Philmont Scout Reservation. Surely there must be other slashdotters that have climbed it. Yes?
    • After more research, I've decided this is not the same South Baldy Peak in New Mexico. Never mind.
      • I thought the same thing, and then double checked. OT: But yes, my Philmot expedition in 2002 had Baldy as a turn-around point (it was the northern most point of our trek). We got to stay in Baldy camp two consecutive nights, which meant we could go up baldy with just day packs. The group we passed on the way up Baldy was lugging all their gear with them, and didn't seem to be enjoying the ascent as much as we were.
  • Most people don't realise that electrical storms cost "billions" of dollars to electrical suppliers with (nuclear) plants going of line to transformers being damaged or destroyed. The first I heard about this type of research of using lasers to redirect and control electrical discharge was in the early 90's (in Japan). If you want big $$$ funding and you like big $$$ lasers this is a great research area for that.
  • At last, Pinky, my plan to take over the world is complete. Surely no one will be able to stop our storm controlling lasers now.... []
    • by temojen ( 678985 )
      Erm, Brain was the insane one; Pinky was the genius who consistently foiled the villain's plans.
  • were they able to generate 1.21 jiggawatts?
  • Sooooo.... Can you fire a laser, capture the ensuing lightning, use that energy to re-power the laser (with some energy to spare), repeat?
  • by Repton ( 60818 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @10:56PM (#23073098) Homepage

    1. Set up giant skyward-pointing laser.
    2. Connect to mad-scientist-style lightning rod.
    3. Wait for thunderstorm.
    4. Profit!!!

    We use the lightning to drive the laser, and syphon off the excess energy into big batteries. The process is self-sustaining until the storm runs out of juice, when it ends naturally. Free electricity for us and no lightning damage to the surrounding area 'cause we're sucking down all the bolts ourselves. It's win-win!

    (of course, now all the America-hating greenies will come out of the woodwork, claiming that we're exploiting the world's natural lightning resources, and warning of grave consequences once we reach "peak storm" or other such nonsense)

  • by ppanon ( 16583 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @10:58PM (#23073114) Homepage Journal
    I remember in the 80's seeing a TV show on directions in space-based weapons research for the SDI/Star Wars program. While both lasers and particle beam weapons were considered, each had their drawbacks. Lasers were subject to attenuation from clouds and atmospheric dust, whereas particle beam weapons were subject to bending from the Earth's magnetic field, as well as dispersion from electrostatic repulsion of the ions. One suggested possible approach was to use a (relatively) lower-power laser to ionize a plasma channel as a conduit for the ionized particle beam (although I expect that would only be effective in atmosphere and therefore would require a lot of LEO satellites). So laser-seeded lightning isn't a huge stretch in that direction - a bigger question would be why hasn't anybody tried it before?

    But this article got me thinking about politicians and religious fundamentalists who lie through their teeth while exclaiming "If I'm lying, may God strike me down with lightning/where I stand". A set of geosync laser platforms powerful enough to create an ionized channel between storm clouds and people who have uttered that phrase just seems long overdue.

  • I was thinking that a more indirect method for collecting the energy would be easier. If you caused an air-ground strike, why not try collecting energy from the induced magnetic field. I would assume the lightning strike is very close to the ground based laser. The collection system would be setup around that point. I know the field would not long (but without a moving coil, the changing field is required to in induce current in the collection coils) nor would it be an efficient method (not really sure how
  • so who will do it first?
  • Unlimited power!!!!!
  • I wonder if this could be used as a form of advertising.
  • Somebody's a fan of pubic lawn care.

Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. - Paul Tillich, German theologian and historian