Scientists at the National Institute of Scientific Research (INRS) in Quebec used lasers to steer electrical charges around obstacles. This proof of concept could eventually lead to a way for humans to control the path of lightning. “Our fascination with lightning and electric arcs aside, this scientific discovery holds out significant potential and opens up new fields of research,” said Yves Begin, vice dean of research and academic affairs at INRS. Electric arcs are already used in technologies such as combustion engines, pollution control applications, lighting, machining and micromachining. The new ability to precisely control their paths could lead to many more applications in the future.
Professor Roberto Morandotti and his colleagues took advantage of the fact that different shaped lasers give discharges distinct properties and trajectories. By combining beams, they demonstrated an S-shaped trajectory, and any other path is theoretically possible. The researchers also wanted to determine whether the self-healing properties of certain shapes of laser beams (such as Airy and Bessel beams) could be put to use in these new experiments. Professor Morandotti’s team placed an object between the two electrodes to see how the discharge would behave. They observed that the bolt leapt over the obstacle (without damaging it) and returned to its laser guide on the other side.
Although the experiments were conducted over small distances of just a few centimeters, they proved that electrical arcs can be controlled. A similar technique could one day be used to protect people by direct lightning bolts away from buildings and guiding the path of high-voltage capacitor discharges. The researchers’ paper also suggests that, “such capabilities can be used for delivering charge to specific targets, for electronic jamming, or for applications associated with electric welding and machining.” The team conducted experiments at the Advanced Laser Light Source (ALLS) facility at INRS and their work is freely available in the journal Science Advances.