Lassoing Lightning With Lasers
The Big Picture features technology through the lens of photographers.
Every month, IEEE Spectrum selects the most stunning technology images recently captured by photographers around the world. We choose images that reflect an important advance, or a trend, or that are just mesmerizing to look at. We feature all images on our site, and one also appears on our monthly print edition.
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A team of researchers from the University of Geneva has worked out how to use lasers to improve lightning rods’ ability to protect nearby structures from nature’s violent electric power surges. It’s long been understood that a conventional lightning rod will protect an area with a radius roughly equal to its height. Because it is impractical to make rods that extend beyond a certain length, today’s sacrificial electric conductors leave some areas vulnerable. The Swiss team shot high-power laser pulses into the sky during a thunderstorm, creating an electrically conductive channel in the air. This channel drew lightning bolts from a wide area down to the tip of the metallic rod, which conveyed the electricity harmlessly into the ground.
When we think of product design, what usually comes to mind are the shiny and/or colorful “shells” that make them identifiable at a glance. But it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And though few people besides repair technicians ever see them, the guts of everyday electronics have their own aesthetic charms. Take, for instance, the power-supply transformer pictured here. The arrangement of the wires, coils, magnets, and insulators that step the voltage of AC current up or down brings to mind a college marching band or a military regiment on parade.
Henry Ford famously quipped that his eponymous company’s customers could get the Model T “in any color—as long as it’s black.” Just over a century later, BMW has made it possible to update a car’s paint job to any of 32 colors with the press of a button. At this year’s CES, the German automaker showed off the iVision Dee (the “Dee” stands for “Digital Emotional Experience”). The concept car’s exterior is covered with e-paper panels that let the sedan change its look effortlessly. The panels are designed to showcase the iVision Dee’s “personality” by responding to external stimuli—like the slack-jawed gasps of onlookers getting their first glance at a chameleon with an internal combustion engine.
Your 3D-printed drone is mere child’s play when compared with the ambitions of Relativity Space, a startup positioning itself to rival Elon Musk’s Space X by launching a reusable 3D-printed rocket. The aim is to haul satellites and other payloads up to 20,000 kilograms into orbit. Using additive manufacturing has obvious benefits, chief among them that it greatly reduces the launch vehicle’s complexity (and therefore its possible points of failure). Instead of the two-year process required to put together rockets the old-fashioned way, Relativity Space’s patented fourth-generation Stargate 3D metal printers—one of which is pictured here—will let its team go from plan to product in two months.