Thinking Tech

New military weapon shoots lightning bolts

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Researchers are testing a device that can hit targets with bolts of lighting -- Tesla death ray-style.

Though we in the media get a rise over the U.S. military attempts to bring sci-fi technology to the battlefield, the results have been hit or miss. Case in point are the millions of research and development funding that were sank into ambitious ideas like the scrapped Boeing YAL-1 laser-equipped jet and the de-funded FEL laser. However, there are also promising concepts, such as Iron-man style exoskeleton suits and total recall style augmented reality contacts.

The latest idea coming out of Picatinny Arsenal in New jersey is a device that can hit targets with bolts of lighting, you know, Tesla death ray-style. Dubbed the Laser-Induced Plasma Channel, or LIPC, the weapon is designed to zap targets such as enemy vehicles since they conduct electricity better than the air or the ground that surrounds them.

Ironically, it was the military who rejected legendary innovator Nikola Tesla original proposal for developing such a weapon. The challenge at the time was figuring out a way to control a sudden discharge of energy so that the bolt would hit an intended target instead of randomly striking.

The solution this time around was to use a powerful laser beam as a conduit that guides the energy pulse toward a specific location. And to hear senior researcher George Fischer explain it, you get the feeling that it'll take some work before troops can go around striking enemy tanks like the the God Zeus.

"For very powerful and high intensity laser pulses, the air can act like a lens, keeping the light in a small-diameter filament," said Fischer. "We use an ultra-short-pulse laser of modest energy to make a laser beam so intense that it focuses on itself in air and stays focused in a filament."

To put the energy output in perspective, a big filament light bulb uses 100 watts. The optical amplifier output is 50 billion watts of optical power, Fischer said.

"If a laser beam is intense enough, its electro-magnetic field is strong enough to rip electrons off of air molecules, creating plasma," said Fischer. "This plasma is located along the path of the laser beam, so we can direct it wherever we want by moving a mirror."

"Air is composed of neutral molecules and is an insulator," Fischer said. When lightning from a thunderstorm leaps from cloud to ground, it behaves just as any other sources of electrical energy and follows the path of least resistance.

"The plasma channel conducts electricity way better than un-ionized air, so if we set up the laser so that the filament comes near a high voltage source, the electrical energy will travel down the filament," Fischer elaborated. (U.S. Military)

You catch that? Me neither. But I'll do my best to put clarify. Basically, if a short pulse laser beam has enough intensity, it can harness electrons from the surrounding air to form plasma. Then what you have is this channel that serves as an ideal conductor, allowing electricity to travel toward the intended target. Enemy vehicles also happen to be good conductors so the current will pass through the target before it runs into the ground, creating an explosion.

Sounds easy, I know. But lasers are very sensitive and easily effected by the surrounding environment, so there's still a lot of fine tuning that needs to be done to ensure reliable results.

"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," Fischer said. "We needed to lower the intensity in the optical amplifier and keep it low until we wanted the light to self-focus in air.

Other challenges include synchronizing the laser with the high voltage, ruggedizing the device to survive under the extreme environmental conditions of an operational environment, and powering the system for extended periods of time. But after a series of tests back in January, the researchers definitely feel encouraged.

"We never got tired of the lightning bolts zapping our simulated (targets)," Fischer added.

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure