Jerome Moloney, director of the UA's Arizona Center for Mathematical Sciences, has been working on developing ultra fast laser systems.
These systems "can ionize the nitrogen and oxygen molecules, for example, in the air we breathe," he said, which creates something called plasma.
Plasma "is a gas of electrons and ions," used in many ways. The first lasers were discovered in the 1960s. From that point forward, scientists have attempted to use lasers to control lightning.
"The problem with these lasers is they are very high energy...and what actually happened was the front of the laser pulse ionized the air to create the plasma, but the plasma was so dense - there were so many electrons and ions in the system - that the rest of the pulse was just absorbed or defracted away," he said.
That made the technology inefficient for creating long channels.
The new technology uses pulses. The laser pulses can ionize molecules, but the electrons are not so dense that they keep the pulse from getting through them. That makes the plasma channel, in essence, a "wire" that can conduct energy through space.
In addition to controlling lightning, by directing it away from buildings for example, these plasma channels could be used to remotely detect pollutants or even chemical agents.
Moloney is part of an international research team developing the plasma technology. Their work has been funded by the U.S. military. "Of course, any kind of remote detection is of interest" to the military, he argued.
"Their interest obviously is in the future potential rather than the short term potential of this. This is really basic science," he added.