Campus News - January 29, 2001
UNM researchers use lasers to guide lightning
By Michael Padilla
In 1752 Benjamin Franklin used a kite to prove that lightning is really
a stream of electrified air. In 2001 researchers at UNM are working with
lasers to guide and control lightning.
The purpose of the project is to guide lightning and direct it away from
people, buildings and aircraft. The idea is to help industry, government
and other agencies save money from damages caused by lightning.
Jean-Claude Diels, Physics & Astronomy professor, and two graduate students, Jens Schwarz and Luca Giuggioli, are conducting laser induced lightning experiments to help control where lightning strikes.
They said that computer networks, and the companies dependent on them, are usually the first ones to be affected by lightning strikes. Diel says they can save money by using this laser as a means of lightning protection.
Schwarz said that the project can help protect Space Shuttle launches
and other space missions. Diels said every year companies lose $1 billion
due to lightning and each year lightning causes about 150 deaths, 20,000
fires and $139 million is lost due to fires.
Diels said the experiments have been successful in the laboratory and has applied for funds to conduct the experiments in the field.
|UNM researchers Schwarz, Diels and Giuggioli (top); the cylinder used to conduct experiments (bottom).|
Currently, the experiments are conducted in a shielded room at UNM. Lightning
is created by discharging high voltage electrodes which simulate cloud and ground.
Lasers are zapped through the electrodes creating a conductive path which the
lightning can follow. Instead of the lightning striking in a zigzag motion,
the lightning strikes alongside the laser beam path, hitting the ground at a
This is a pretty exciting project, Schwarz said. It is an extremely
powerful experiment, adding that 200,000 volts of electricity are zapped over
a distance of 30-40 centimeters.
Schwarz said the alternative to lasers is to use rockets with wire to guide
lightning, but the problem with that is that the rocket has to come down. By
using lasers, he said, it makes the process easier and less cumbersome.
Schwarz has been working on the project for four years and it is the subject
of his dissertation. His research is primarily on fundamentals of light strings.
Giuggioli, who has been working on the project for two and half years, studies
lightning discharges and filaments.
Schwarz and Giuggioli also study the ionization properties of different gases
and other fundamental principles.
Diels said the project has received national as well as international attention
and has also been featured in the London Sunday Times.
The idea is to be safe from the hazards of lightning, Diels said. And that is our intention to create a device that will help protect the public from lightning.
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