A lot of heat and humidity cause thunderstorms, especially in summer. Now scientists from Switzerland and France are planning to prevent lightning strikes – with the help of a super laser from Germany.

Lightning strikes cause enormous damage worldwide. In the USA alone, annual lightning damage amounts to around five billion dollars. This includes direct destruction as well as additional costs, for example, because aircraft have to fly detours due to thunderstorms.

Research project with Airbus and Ariane

The physicist Jean-Pierre Wolf from the University of Geneva wants to reduce this damage. Together with researchers from the polytechnic universities in Paris and Lausanne and other partners such as the aircraft manufacturer Airbus and the European aerospace company Ariane, he is working on a project that sounds like science fiction: Using laser technology, lightning is to be diverted from thunderclouds in a controlled manner or even prevented altogether, explains Wolf. “Our idea is to discharge this cloud with a laser, which means that the laser will be the lightning conductor”.

Super-Laser from Unterföhring

For their experiment, the researchers want to install a powerful laser on Mount Säntis in eastern Switzerland, where there is a particularly high incidence of lightning strikes. The laser comes from Germany from the company Trumpf Scientific Lasers in Unterföhring. During thunderstorms, they want to repeatedly shoot extremely short but high-energy laser pulses into the electrostatically charged clouds, explains the researcher.

A huge amount of energy, but only for one picosecond at a time – Jean-Pierre Wolf speaks of three to five terawatts. That is roughly the same as the output of all the nuclear power stations on earth combined. The researchers expect an amazing effect from the laser pulse. They assume that the voltage in the cloud will then decrease and it will no longer be able to flash in another place.

Goal: Prevent lightning elsewhere

In other words, airports, power plants or other facilities would be safe from lightning strikes. For years, scientists have been researching not only the discharge of clouds, but also the idea of a lightning conductor in the form of an air channel created by a laser. Lightning would be directed through such a channel onto a normal lightning rod. Jean-Pierre Wolf says: “Laboratory experiments suggest that this principle could actually work:

“We demonstrated this on a shorter distance, two three four meters. And it works. You can really see how the current follows the laser path, really, it becomes very straight, not as erratic as you know it.”

Jean-Pierre Wolf, physicist

These days, the first measurements should have been made on the top of the Swiss mountain Säntis, but due to the Covid 19 pandemic, the researchers had to reschedule. The experiment will now be carried out next year.

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