Brightly guided sparks



A method of guiding electric sparks through air with lasers, a breakthrough joint Heriot-Watt study with INRS-EMT (Canada), is attracting international interest after publication in Scientific Advances.

This is an exciting new step with the opportunity for practical developments
Dr Matteo Clerici

Guiding electric discharges with lasers has been a long standing goal for the scientific community since the 1970s, both as a test bench for our understanding of the physics of intense lasers interaction with gasses and for the potential applications, including the possibility to control lightning strikes.

Now Dr Matteo Clerici and Professor Daniele Faccio from Heriot-Watt University, in collaboration with an international pool of scientists lead by Professor Morandotti at INRS-EMT (Canada), have shown that electric arcs can be laser-guided over complex trajectories like S-shaped paths, to overcome obstacles or over a pre-determined path.

The technological applications of this discovery are still to be fully developed, however, Dr Clerici says, proofs of concept for advanced laser-assisted electrical machining are underway.

“This is an exciting new step with the opportunity for practical developments. Long range guiding may allow us to steer lightning strikes to safe areas and perhaps also to harness their power. At the same time, short distance electric arcs controlled by lasers may indeed be a game changing technology for machining, cutting and material processing.

“For instance we hope that an extension of the results we are currently investigating may allow us to develop a ‘plasma knife’ with the potential to extend the range of applications of lasers in the cutting and marking market.”