Installed on top of the Säntis a laser capable of capturing lightning strikes and directing them in a controlled manner to the ground. This modern lightning rod system was created to protect sensitive installations, things and people over an area much larger than the Franklin lightning rod.
Lightning strikes are as fascinating as they are dangerous, both for the environment (they can trigger accidents) and for the safety of people and things. The climate change that we are sadly already experiencing leads to increasingly devastating and violent storms and already today, on average, lightning strikes between 6,000 and 24,000 people a year. There are techniques to protect yourself from lightning, but for now the best solution is still based on the concept of lightning rod, invented by Benjamin Franklin almost 300 years ago.
The Laser Lightning Rod (LLR) project of the European consortium EIC FET-Open wants to go further, and for this reason a new type of lightning protection based on the use of a powerful laser fired upwards has been developing for some years. capable of capturing and discharging lightning strikes. It is a technique that aims to transfer the charge present in the clouds to the ground in a controlled way.
As reported by CNN, the technology is now ready for field testing at the weather station in Säntis (Switzerland), at an altitude of 2500 meters. Getting the laser up to that height wasn’t easy when you think that 29 tons of material were transported to the top of the mountain, including 18 tons of concrete blocks to anchor everything securely in the face of strong winds.
University of Geneva researchers led by Professor Jean-Pierre Wolf lead the European Union-funded consortium that includes universities in Paris and Lausanne, rocket manufacturer ArianeGroup and German laser manufacturer Trumpf Scientific Lasers, tasked with developing a compact laser source with an unprecedented combination of energy and speed.
“This is one of the places in Europe most affected by lightning,” Wolf explained. “There is a radio transmission tower that is hit 100 to 400 times a year. So it’s a great place to do our experiments.”
Lightning strikes form when turbulent air inside a thundercloud swirls violently around ice crystals and water droplets, stripping electrons from their atoms and creating separate zones with opposite electrical charges. These electric fields can become very strong and because opposite charges attract each other, they can connect through a discharge of electricity, namely lightning.
The laser mimics and enhances this natural scenario by generating an electric field so strong that it directly strikes electrons from their atoms, creating the opposite charges necessary for lightning to form. The idea is to make the clouds discharge lightning in a controlled way. “That’s why we call it laser lightning rods,” Wolf told CNN. The beam will run along the existing transmission tower, which is over 120 meters high.
Traditional lightning rods only protect a limited area of the ground, while the laser will cover a larger area, although exactly how much cannot yet be said. Furthermore, according to the theory, the laser could not only capture lightning generated by thunderstorm activity, but also trigger extra ones by discharging the clouds.