Scientists discover how to make on-demand lightning

Wikipedia Back in the days of ancient Greece or Rome, if someone could magically generate lightning-on-demand they’d probably be hailed as a god. Until not too many years ago most people believed that lightning and the roaring thunder that follows were some sort of warning or punishment from the heavens.

Well now scientists in New Mexico have put an end to those theories – or at least they nearly have. By firing lasers into a thundercloud they just about managed to generate a bolt of lightning. They didn’t actually manage it because their techniques aren’t yet well enough developed, but they say they should be ready before too long.

It sounds pretty cool doesn’t it, lightning whenever and wherever you want it (although obviously it only works when you’ve got a thundercloud). So how did they do it? It sounds almost like science fiction: they shot laser beams up into thunderclouds, which caused a line of gas in the cloud to become ionized – that means it was given a charge.

Wikipedia Because lightning is essentially just a huge stream of charged particles, the line of particles that the laser created acted much like a lightning rod, and it directed the flash of lightning downward. It didn’t hit the ground in this experiment because the technique used was not powerful enough, but before long scientists should have mastered the technology.

Wikipedia It’s all very well being able to generate lightning, but as with so many experiments like this you just have to wonder, well, why? Actually, it could have some good uses. By knowing exactly when and where lightning is going to strike, scientists can do their research into this deadly killer a lot more easily. It’s also going to be useful for testing how lightning-resistant new planes and power lines are.

We’ve already discovered how to create rain (well at least sort-of), and now we can make lightning. It’ll be interesting to see where weather research takes us next in the decades ahead. I bet those scientists wish they lived in Ancient Rome – think of all the special treatment they’d get now as gods!

National Geographic has an excellent interactive page showing how lightning works.

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2 Responses

  1. This is an interesting post, Richard! I was just reading and thinking about the possibilities of using lightning as an energy source, so if you could actually generate lightning, it could make that possibility a lot more viable.

    Another advantage of the ability to create lightning might be to draw lightning away from sensitive areas, sort of like the way controlled explosions on snowy slopes reduce the possibility of dangerous avalanche activity. I wonder if storms could be “de-toothed” this way?

  2. I hadn’t thought of the energy source idea – I think that could probably be a viable idea if they could develop the technology. The only problem would be generating enough energy to make it worthwhile using the high-energy lasers.

    As for the ‘storm relocation’ idea – I’d think that would definitely be possible. There’s only so much charge in a thundercloud, so you should be able to divert some of it away from populated areas.

    Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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