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Brrzzzt! U.S. Army checks out laser-based lightning tech

Future weapon would seek out targets that conduct electricity better than the air or ground that surrounds them.

Guided lightning bolt travels horizontally, then hits a car.
U.S. Army

Earlier this spring, the U.S. Army revealed the existence of a project underway to build a device that could shoot lightning bolts down laser beams to take out a target. Now the military's boffins report success in their first tests.

The technology -- known as laser-induced plasma channel -- is designed to seek out targets that conduct electricity better than the air or ground that surrounds them.

Although scientists and engineers working on the weapon's development expressed confidence in the physics behind their work, George Fischer, who is the lead scientist on the project, nonetheless cautioned about the technical challenges still ahead.

"If the light focuses in air, there is certainly the danger that it will focus in a glass lens, or in other parts of the laser amplifier system, destroying it," according to Fischer. "We needed to lower the intensity in the optical amplifier and keep it low until we wanted the light to self-focus in air.

Laser weaponry is moving apace. In early May, for example, Northrop Grumman demonstrated a prototype system that burned through the skin of a drone playing the part of a cruise missile for the test. However, Fischer pointed to the challenges involved in synchronizing the laser with the high voltage, as well as how to build a device that's sufficiently rugged so as to stand up under extreme environmental conditions. The system would also need to be able to perform in the field over extended periods of time, he said, adding that a number of high-tech components would need to run continuously.

It remains unclear how soon the military can weaponize this sort of technology. A representative from the Picatinny Arsenal, headquarters for the project, was not available for comment.

However, there's clear interest in getting this done as the battlefield bottom line in having a weapon which can harness lightning bolts is huge in terms of the amount of energy generated.

"If a laser puts out a pulse with modest energy, but the time is incredibly tiny, the power can be huge," according to Fischer. "During the duration of the laser pulse, it can be putting out more power than a large city needs, but the pulse only lasts for two-trillionths of a second."