High-tech Lightning Arrester

Making Lightning harmless with Laser Pulses

23. Juli 2021, 09:28 Uhr   |  Heinz Arnold

Making Lightning harmless with Laser Pulses
© Trumpf/Martin Stollberg

Trumpf and the University of Geneva have put the laser-based lightning conductor into operation on the Säntis mountain, which is over 2500 m high.

Trumpf and the University of Geneva want to use laser pulses to divert lightning from thunderclouds in a targeted and controlled manner to prevent damage.

To this end, weather experiments will take place over the next few weeks on Mount Säntis with the aim of diverting lightning from thunderclouds in a targeted and controlled manner and thus, in perspective, preventing damage from uncontrolled lightning strikes. TRUMPF Clemens Herkommer, laser engineer at Trumpf Scientific Lasers in Unterföhring near Munich, has spent the past four years developing this super laser, which is unique to date, specifically for this project: "The laser lightning rod is one of the most powerful lasers in its class currently available. We shoot into the clouds at a rate of a thousand laser pulses per second to render lightning harmless and thus make the world a little safer," says Herkommer.

Lightning strikes at airports, nuclear power plants, skyscrapers and forests cause damage worth several billion euros every year. In the U.S. alone, thunderstorms and lightning cause economic damage of $5 billion a year, mostly through disruptions to air traffic and damage to aircraft or high-voltage power lines. For this reason, the EU has launched the "Laser Lightning Rod" project. Trumpf's laser is at the heart of this project. It creates a kind of channel in thunderclouds, the so-called laser filament. As soon as a lightning bolt wants to discharge from the thundercloud, this laser filament gives the lightning bolt no other chance than to strike the ground in a controlled manner through the predefined channel. The development of the laser system cost around 2 million euros.

By helicopter to the mountain top

"We have worked intensively on this laser over the past few years, preparing it for its use on Säntis. In the laboratory, the laser is working perfectly. We are very optimistic that it will also deflect lightning in the atmosphere," says Herkommer. The project partners, led by meteorologist Prof. Jean-Pierre Wolf of the University of Geneva, expect initial results by the end of summer 2021.

Already the transport of the laser on the Säntis was a record-breaking undertaking: At nine meters long and weighing around five tons, the laser is relatively bulky. To transport it to the weather station on the mountain peak, Clemens Herkommer and his project partners disassembled the laser into several individual parts and brought it to the summit by cable car and helicopter at the end of May 2021. After reassembling the laser array and putting it into operation over the past few weeks, the weather experiments have now begun.

The mountain and the project partners

The fact that the laser-based lightning rod was installed on the Swiss mountain Säntis is no coincidence. Hundreds of lightning bolts strike Säntis during peak thunderstorm periods in June, July and August.

Working with Trtumpf and Prof. Jean-Pierre Wolf on the project are the University of Geneva, the French Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the consultancy AMC, the Polytechnic Institute in Lausanne, the aerospace company Ariane Group and the University of Applied Sciences of Western Switzerland, HES.

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