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Laser Focused on Moving Lightning

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    Scientists placed this laser-based lightning rod on Switzerland’s Säntis mountain. (Trumpf)
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    The laser is designed to divert lightning strikes. (Trumpf)
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    The laser beam reaches far into the sky. (Trumpf)
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    Scientists transported the laser to the summit via cable car and helicopter. (Trumpf)
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    Workers install the laser lightning rod on Säntis. (Trumpf)
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    Laser engineer Clemens Herkommer works in a tent on Säntis. (Trumpf)
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Physicists on a Swiss mountaintop have finally re-directed lightning. The technology could someday protect ports, data centers, utility structures, and other sensitive locales from dangerous strikes. But will pricey tech outperform Ben Franklin’s handcrafted lightning rod?

Thunderstorms release powerful electricity. One lightning bolt could power all of Sante Fe, New Mexico, for one minute. Such powerful lightning strikes can—and sometimes do—cause serious damage.

To lessen the harm of electric charges from lightning, American Benjamin Franklin took a pointy metal rod and placed it on a roof. He ran a wire from the rod to the ground. The rod drew lightning away from the roof by sending current down the wire to the ground. Franklin’s simple 1752 invention—the lightning rod—is still the most common protection from lightning strikes.

That may soon change.

In a January Nature Photonics article, Swiss scientists Aurélien Houard and Jean-Pierre Wolf documented a series of experiments. They were the first to successfully demonstrate the Laser Lightning Rod (LLR).

Houard says scientists have tried using lasers to guide lightning since the 1960s. The theory was that a laser beam would create a channel for the electrical current to travel: a path of least resistance. Those first attempts failed.

In the 1990s, scientists developed shorter, lower-energy laser pulses. In the lab, lasers proved better at creating channels for the electricity to follow. But outdoor experiments with natural lightning didn’t budge the bolts.

Fast forward 30+ years. Houard and Wolf have succeeded where only Franklin had before.

The scientists placed a high-powered laser atop a tower on Switzerland’s Säntis mountain. The laser shot about 1,000 pulses of light per second beyond the tower’s top.

During a multi-month experiment, lightning hit the tower four times when the laser system was working. Researchers studied each strike. In each case, lightning followed the laser beam more than 150 feet before hitting the lightning rod.

The researchers’ credit their success to their ultra-speedy laser. It kept the “channel” open more than previous slower lasers.

Can the fancy laser compete with an ordinary lightning rod? Houard says the answer is maybe. It can protect a larger area than a traditional rod. But the cost of LLR is shocking: over $1 million per rod.

The Swiss experiment did prove that Laser Lightning Rods work. Still, as scientist Joseph Dwyer points out in a Washington Post interview, “We’re a long ways away from having the technology keep everybody safe from lightning.”

Why? A storm’s power reminds us of our powerful God. But ever since the fall into sin, storms pose a threat. Using God’s own scientific laws to protect human wellbeing in this fallen world is a challenge and a worthwhile endeavor to explore.