Scientists have been trying to figure out how to stimulate lightning strikes with lasers for several decades, and now a group of European researchers have made an important advance.

The group, led by Jerome Kasparian of the University of Lyon, used laser pulses to trigger electrical activity in thunderclouds passing over New Mexico’s South Baldy Peak. By tweaking these laser pulses in the future, Kasparian thinks they should be able to create charged channels of molecules that act like conducting wires, and provide the lightning with a path to the ground.

In these experiments, the channels generated by the current laser didn’t last long enough. The team estimates that they’ll need to boost the power of the laser pulses ten-fold. The ability to generate laser-triggered strikes on-demand could make it easier for scientists to study lightning itself. But engineers could also use it to test whether airplanes and power lines are resistant to strikes.

The work is published in the latest issue of _Optics Express_.