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In the era of remote-controlled drones, invisible planes and microwave guns, no military innovation should come as a surprise. But among the array of new weapons none are more satisfying than a cannon that allows you to unleash bolts of lightning.
The Laser-Induced Plasma Channel (LIPC) cannon is currently being tested at Picatinny Arsenal, a key US Army research complex in New Jersey.
Today's military lasers can blind spy satellites or burn enemy vehicles, but tomorrow's could guide lightning bolts to strike and destroy battlefield targets.
A U.S. Army lab is testing how lasers can create an energized plasma channel in the air — an invisible pathway for electricity to follow. The laser-guided lightning weapon could precisely hit targets such as enemy tanks or unexploded roadside bombs, because such targets represent better conductors for electricity than the ground.
"We never got tired of the lightning bolts zapping our simulated (targets)," said George Fischer, lead scientist on the project at the U.S. Army's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey.
"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.