Army tests laser plasma lightning cannon

This, people, is the Army's shiny new laser plasma lightning cannon. It shoots lightning bolts down plasma channels created by laser beams to disable electronics and blow sh*t up. It's a laser plasma lightning cannon. A laser plasma lightning cannon!

Believe it or not, creating a laser plasma lightning cannon (or technically, a "laser-induced plasma channel weapon") is really not that hard to do. At least, in principle.

Lightning (and electricity in general) is always trying to neutralize its charge, which usually means that it's looking for the easiest way to get from wherever it is down to the ground. This is what makes every single electronic thing work: electricity goes from a source to a ground, and we make it pass through motors and computer chips along the way to power our stuff.

Anyway, all you have to do to control a blast of lightning is make sure that the place you want the lightning to go is also the path of least resistance for the lightning to travel along. It's easy to do this with a metal wire (which is how a Taser works), but you can also do it through thin air, using a laser. A powerful enough laser pulse can strip electrons off of air molecules, creating a very thin (and highly conductive) channel of plasma. By "powerful enough," we're talking about a laser that outputs fifty billion watts (!) over two trillionths of a second.

Once you've got a channel, you can fling lightning bolts along it in a straight line, but it gets even cooler: fire the lightning anywhere near a conductive object, and the lightning will travel along the plasma channel until the conductive object gets close enough to provide the lightning with a more attractive path to the ground, at which point the lightning will immediately change direction and hit the object. It's sort of like a heat-seeking weapon, except instead of heat, it seeks conductivity, and theoretically it has no problem doing this at right angles or even around corners.

The military is hoping that this weapon can be used to disable vehicles and destroy unexploded ordinance (like IEDs) from a safe distance. There's still a lot of work to do to make sure that it's reliable, rugged and able to generate enough power to be useful outside of a laboratory, but from the sound of things, the researchers involved are happy to keep playing with it:

"We never got tired of the lightning bolts zapping our simulated (targets)," said George Fischer, lead scientist on the project, [said in a release by the U.S. Army].

Seriously, laser plasma lightning cannon testing has to be one of the coolest jobs ever.

Army, via Engadget

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