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Powerful Laser Makes Raindrops Out of Thin Air

Ultra-fast pulses from a powerful laser can create droplets of water out of thin air, according to a new study. With the right conditions and large enough droplets, the researchers say, the technique could be used to make rain on demand.

Rain forms when water condenses around tiny particles in the atmosphere. Most of the time, dust or pollen do the job, but humans have long attempted to speed the process by seeding clouds with chemicals like silver iodide. Those chemicals provide the so-called "condensation nuclei" that trigger the consolidation of water into raindrops.

Unfortunately, such methods are difficult and could have environmental side effects, said Jérôme Kasparian, an optical physicist at the University of Geneva, Switzerland who was on the team that demonstrated the laser-triggered condensation. The study was published online May 2 in the journal Nature Photonics.

"The potential advantage of laser is that it can work continuously," Kasparian said. If lasers can trigger rain on a large scale, he said, it would also be more efficient and cheaper than spraying silver iodide out of airplanes or shooting it into the sky from rockets.

Researches have long known that short, strong laser pulses can ionize air molecules, creating pathways of ionized gas called plasma channels. Kasparian and his team wanted to find out whether those plasma channels could be of use to wannabe rainmakers.

"Our idea is to use the laser to ionize the air, and the ions that are produced can then serve as the condensation nuclei," Kasparian said.

To test the idea, the researchers first used an atmospheric cloud chamber, a box that enabled them to vary temperature and humidity. After saturating the air in the chamber, the team flipped on a several-terawatt laser (one terawatt is a trillion watts) and watched with surprise as visible water droplets formed. Three seconds after the laser pulsed, the droplets swelled to diameters of 80 micrometers, smaller than a raindrop but larger than expected.

"What was very amazing was the fact that the cloud was very well visible to the [naked] eye, so the effect was quite strong," Kasparian said.

The next step was to take the laser outside. Using a weaker laser to monitor the formation of foggy air, the team blasted their multiple-terawatt laser into the sky of Berlin in Autumn 2008. Again, they saw heartening evidence: Particles coalescing in the atmosphere.

"This means that the laser can trigger the formation of droplets inside a cloud chamber, [but also] in the real atmosphere," Kasparian said. "Now the challenge is to find conditions that will allow the droplets to grow further into the size where they will fall and get turned into rain."

But creating big enough droplets is the number-one challenge in rainmaking, said Roelof Bruintjes, a project scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

"I'm not sure the lasers are going to get us to that stage," Bruintjes said, urging caution: "I wouldn't buy a hundred lasers now and go out and seed clouds."

Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.