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U.S. Army weapon shoots lightning bolts down laser beams


June 28, 2012

A lightning bolt travels horizontally down a plasma channel from the LIPC before deviating when it gets close to the target which offers a lower-resistance path to the ground (Photo: U.S. Army)

A lightning bolt travels horizontally down a plasma channel from the LIPC before deviating when it gets close to the target which offers a lower-resistance path to the ground (Photo: U.S. Army)

Thought that title might get your attention, but shooting lightning bolts down laser beams is just what a device being developed at the Picatinny Arsenal military research facility in New Jersey is designed to do. Known as a Laser-Induced Plasma Channel, or LIPC, the device would fry targets that conduct electricity better that the air or ground that surrounds them by steering lightning bolts down a plasma pathway created by laser beams.

The pathway takes the form of an electrically conductive plasma channel that is formed when a laser beam of enough intensity (a 50 billion watt pulse lasting two-trillionths of a second will do) forms an electro-magnetic field strong enough to ionize the surrounding air to form plasma. Because the plasma channel conducts electricity much better than the non-ionized air that surrounds it, electrical energy will travel down the channel.

Then, when it hits its target – an enemy vehicle, person or unexploded ordnance, for example – the current will flow through the target as it follows the path of least resistance to the ground, potentially disabling the vehicle or person and detonating the ordnance. The lightning will also deviate from the channel when it gets close to the target and finds a lower-resistance path to the ground.

That’s the basic physics behind it, but overcoming the technical challenges to actually build the device won’t be easy.

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

The research team also had to synchronize the laser with the high voltage and ruggedize the device so it could be operated under extreme environmental conditions. There is, of course, also the problem of providing enough power to operate the device for extended periods of time. Despite these challenges, the team claims to have made notable progress in recent months after reporting "excellent results" in tests conducted in January, 2012.

Work on the device is continuing.

Source: U.S. Army via engadget

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

"potentially disabling the vehicle or person" How euphemistic ! Like "terminating with extreme prejudice" BTW, didn't I see this in a movie with Ahhnold?

Tom Sobieski

I considered the idea years ago but decided that once you have a laser capable of generating the plasma trail the electrical discharge would be superfluous.

The laser could also be useful as an active lightning rod system whether or not you can use the super surge of electricity.


don't use this in a thunderstorm.... :P

Jacob Shepley

Don't get it. If you have enough energy to fire a laser beam... why don't you just use the laser beam to destroy whatever target you want to destroy... since it's a 50 billion watt laser, I'm pretty sure it's stronger than a jolt of electricity, even if it only lasts 2 trillionths of a second. In fact, this is probably better, because this can be targeted accurately (say at the engine of an enemy tank 100 km away) and nobody will be able to see it. The target would just explode seemingly spontaneously. common sense, anybody?

Daniel Tan

@Daniel Socrates Tan

One thing you need to know about tactical lasers, is that they aren't instantaneous. It takes a good twenty seconds of exposure to burn a hole in a missile or vehicle. And that still doesn't guarantee that it will explode. Plus, the point of this weapon is to be tunable to different targets and sometimes 'NOT' to fry them on purpose.

Mark Gilbreath

For those asking the question why not just use the laser to do the damage... Most of you are leaving off the most important measure of the laser pulse: "two-trillionths of a second" That is Two picoseconds. If you hit a soft target like a person with that you might reasonable be ale to do some harm but it would only be skin deep (better hope you hit him in the eyes). A hard target like a vehicle wouldn't even notice it. You would need to be able to maintain the beam for almost a full second to do significant damage to a vehicle especially an armored vehicle. Electricity on the other hand can destroy electronics, and nerve pathways with a very brief pulse.

So in short the laser pulse duration is too brief to do damage, current laser technology would vaporize itself before delivering that kind of power for a usefull timespan, and electricity can do much more damage.


Slowburn, are you a defense contractor? Since you are always on top of all the new defense technologies, maybe you should be getting paid for it.

Also, the laser must not last long enough to do any real damage, or else they would not have even considered using it in this manner. 50 billion watts is a hell of a lot to keep going. The electricity jolt could be controlled enough that it can knock a person out, disable a vehicle, or detonate an explosive device. You don't even have to aim it perfectly to hit a huge tank with it, just be near enough that it takes the path of least resistance.

Jay Lloyd

Why not deliver a charge sufficiently disruptive to the very structure (or parts of) the object to be "affected"?


@Daniel Socrates Tan

C'mon, everyone knows that laser beams are blue, unless you're the bad guy, then they're red...


The problem is how are you going to put the steel ground plates under the target?

Next a laser heats the air, not generatoe an electromagnetic field.

Electricity does take the path least resistance but that isn't nessasarily the target. It might just as well be the shooting vehicle, humid air, etc.


And while the laser may burn a hole, high voltage electricity will fry electronics. Of course it may not be an either or scenario, why not both? :) A ship could carry a 500,000 volt transformer.... Channeling that type of push would be a technical challenge though.


Sounds like a Zat'nik'tel, or Zat gun. Colonel Jack O'Neill would be proud.

XJohn Doex

This is great. This way a lightning bolt can be easily aimed at a single vehicle/entity to disable or to destroy. Very valuable for suicide vehicles etc. Like a very well targeted EMP or deadlier force. Disadvantage, if it falls into the wrong hands can create mayhem.

It can even be used to stun large wild animals like elephants, sharks, etc. Can be used as a long range taser. This is like those star trek guns where one can adjust from stun to kill.

We are probably going to see lots of Bank robbers dressed as trekkies!!!


There has been long term discussion of using UV laser to create a plasma channel through air for for purposes of delivering a jolt to a distant target. At least one defense contractor was working on a long range "taser" for the non-lethal weapons program right after 9/11 that was intended to knock a person unconscious over a distance of several thousand feet (overran budget and got canceled). Another has proposed disabling vehicles by delivering an electromagnetic pulse or high power microwave signal to the vehicle over a plasma channel (unaware if it ever got funded). It is not hard to contrive a signal to do this that will work on contact or over a very short distance. But the laser plasma channel offers a means to deliver same at extreme distance without having to scale up the EMP or HPM power very much. It also contains the area of effect to the "contact" target.

Bob Ehresman

Useless tech for anti vehicle, all you need to fence off a jolt is to ground vehicle with chains rear and front. No stopping you then, should stop funding for this stupid weapon at once.


"Whatever you do, don't cross the beams!"


"The laser could also be useful as an active lightning rod system whether or not you can use the super surge of electricity. " - Slowburn

Agreed. I see two uses for this

a) To induce a lightning strike to hit YOU, this assumes u have meta-materials giving you something like a superconducting "infinite sink" (instantaneous charging capacitor that can be filled instantly with enormous energy amounts at the source end of your beam if it does strike). It also has to be coated "super-insulators" (opposite of superconductors) if you store it as the same medium, preventing the Lightning leaping through and out of your "battery" to the closest conductive object.

And its in a place where lightning is frequent and semi-predictable, you have to make educated guesses on when to go "pew pew" to sky hoping its enough to trigger one, and the cost / energy of "pew pewing" over time your lazer is LESS than returns on energy when it does work.

If that is pulled off though (main issue would be material engineering ), it would be a phenomenal boon to renewable energy.

b) To make fire work displays more impressive.

Andrew Kubicki

Frying electronics inside a car is not as easy as just delivering a high voltage pulse to the car body, because the car body, being a conductor, protects the electronics inside. That is why airplanes can be hit by lightnings and continue to fly.


I think the idea is to direct natural lightning to targets, like mythical Zeus or Odin, so the laser would be in orbit aiming down at targets and most of the ammo would be in thunderstorms.

Ross Nicholson

It was only a matter of time before this was thought up... Next is lightning crashing down on laser-designated targets fired from, let's say, satellites.

Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret

Obviously, the energy content of the electric discharge is immensely more relevant. The laser may have high power, but low energy due to the extremely brief duration. Back to highschool basic Physics: Energy=PowerTime=Wattssec=Joules ... also Calories, kWh, BTUs, HP,... Power = Energy/Time =Joules/sec = Watts ... also kW, BTU/hr, ... Given Power = 50 Billion W = 5010Exp(9) J/sec Given Time = 2 Trillionths sec = 210Exp(-12) sec Then ENERGY = PowerTime = 50210Exp(9-12) J = 10010Exp(-3) J = 0.100 J 1/10 of a Joule! Just for comparison, the energy of a typical pro photographic flash is in the order of 20-50 Joules... they usually specify as "Watt*Second", which is literally JOULES. Maybe the info on the DURATION of the laser pulse is wrong...? If 1,000 times longer=2 Billionths sec, then 100 J; If 1,000,000 times = 2 Millionths sec, then 100,000 J = 1/36 kWh = 24 kCal ... One Big Mac provides you 550 kCal !!! What is the catch here??? Of course, the PULSE being absurdly short is of prime importance... extremely high power concentrated over a 1/1000 nanosecond makes all the difference, but I don't really believe an ENERGY level of 1/10th Joule will do the job. Increase that 1 Million times, and you still have the energy content of 1/22 Big Mac... I'd ask the editors to review those figuresm before any further discussion.


The power source could be a back pack that houses shotgun blast tubes surrounded by copper wiring. Firing a shotgun cartridge (without the slug) would ionize the air inside the tubes and create an instant, and powerful, electric current. Depending on the set up it could be automatic with a single blast tube with rotating chambers for holding the cartridges, or multiple blast tubes each with its own cartridge.

I would love to be in on the design with real engineers for that.

the nationalist

I agree with Jabelom, this system could be easily counter-measured by putting the vehicles to ground. With persons or explosive devices might be more effective...

The idea of shooting the beams from satellites and using clouds as ammo is super elegant, Zeus would be proud of us (?)


Hmmm..... Lightning assisted laser used to disable enemies. An ionized path is sent verticaly (via pulse pods between target and shooter) to tap charged clouds and another ionized path is sent horizontally to it's target for demobilization.

Gary Richardson

Ok, so it is possible to zap a vehicle with a small lightning... Can the target vehicle protect its electronics simply via Faraday Cage housing? Wiring could use opto-isolators combined with fast fuses (we already do that to protect our valuable electronics from thunderstorms). So, after the smoke clears perhaps the vehicle (or at least its more vital systems) could jump back to life ?!?!?!

Charlie Channels

A lightning laser magnetically-pinched-nuclear-fusion power-generator is described in the Nasa Create The Future Design Engineering Contest entry May 17, 2012 where a lightning laser is used to capture real lightning from the sky which is then used to ignite nuclear fusion reactions! Artificial lightning generated by a tesla coil is sent along ionized channels of air which were ionized by an ultraviolet or other lasers into the clouds and ionosphere to discharge available lightning which then travels down the lightning laser ionized path beam to a magnetically confined fusion generator. The captured real lightning is transformed to higher amperages which are used to magnetically pinch deuterium-tritium creating supersonic shock waves that ignite the fuel while it is confined in a magnetic bottle. Heat generated is used to produce steam for a steam turbine which rotates an electric generator to power the grid.


My question is how long does the plasma effect persist after the laser pulse ends. If it persisted several nano seconds this would allow several electrical pulses to be delivered for each shot of the laser.

It seems the electrical charge could be delivered via firing the laser through a conducive ring. Since most military vehicles are harden against electrical interference I am not sure what value this has as a weapon but it is very interesting tech.

I think there is a serious moral concern in using this against personnel. Much like chemical and biological weapons it may be effective but that does not mean it is moral.

For anyone thinking this would make a reasonable sniper type weapon realize that you don't get to pick the exact target making this useless for counter terrorism or any form of discriminate targeting. The one use this might have is in EOD.


What about the possible idea to build a Lightning Electrical Generating plant? What I propose (between 1 and 180 minute intervals) is to fire an ionized laser up through a small hole in large suspended dense metal object to bring down a number of lightning bolts per hour just as Nasa did with a copper wire when it was sent up 3000 foot. See http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/pdf/167417main_Lightning08.pdf (page 9) I believe this can be achieved in storms. Clear blue skies are question mark. Personally my belief is they can – the laser just needs to go higher. As the charged particles (electricity) of the lower Van Ellen belt which is not a distinctive belt as such - more of a gradual fading of charged particles to the level of the clouds are continuously recharging the atmosphere around the different clouds levels. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_Allen_radiation_belt A lightning bolt releases around 5 billion Joules. Apparently you have to have a billion lightning strikes to have any effect on a hurricane according to one person I spoke to so on the whole it will have little effect on the weather. Some I have spoken to have said this is uneconomical - maybe it is but wouldn't that depend on the number of strikes brought down per hour and the amount of power it would take to send an ionized laser up around 1000 meters. With the on-going sale of electricity versus the minimum on-going yearly costs in comparison I personally am not sure how a 'Lightning electrical generating plant' could be uneconomical if it functioned with all inefficiencies tweaked to their absolute best. My belief is once an ionized line to the clouds is formed subsequent ionized laser bursts would not have to be as strong just as lightning often strikes again in the same place contrary to that old saying it doesn't. Electricity always flows from negative to positive. The ionized laser could pass by an earthed heavy duty wire before it seeks a positively charged cloud. As the beam is sent upwards it could pass through a small hole in a large dense suspended object. Any electricity coming down should hit the metal object and not the unit. My initial idea is to send that electricity into a number of 20 foot container sized capacitors to heat up a body of water with red hot coils to drive a turbine to create consumable electricity. Once the right economies of scale and problems are worked out with a more costly prototype, such plant could be replicated many times over all over the world to bring the plant price down. Electrons 'circle' a direct current wire just as I believe 'circling' hurricanes increase by a massive build-up of electricity as they play between the negative earth and the positive charged clouds which have been wirelessly charged from the lower Van Ellen belt. Circling hurricanes, water spouts or tornadoes I believe have the same mechanics as the bulbous build-up of negative electricity reaches to a positive charged cloud. The water and wind flow along the paths of charged electrons as they spin around the flow of electricity between the two. Hurricanes often start in places of flat earth or the sea and will often end as they hit the hills or mountains. Any tree, church steeple, or mountain lets off a positive charge at its peak. They are of struck as electricity flows the other way from a negative cloud to a positive point. Taking a step back - If you could see through the world from the North or South pole, Cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere (clockwise weather storms) & Anti Cyclones in the Northern Hemisphere (anti clockwise weather storms) are actually going the same way around as they play between the iron core of our world and the lower Van Allen belt.

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