An electrolaser is a hybrid optical/electrical directed-energy weapon. It functions by ionizing a corridor of air using laser-induced blooming, then sending an electric current at a target through the conductive channel. This is similar to the way that a lightning discharge works.
At least two defense contracting companies have created handheld electrolaser weapons — Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems of Anderson, Indiana, and Ionatron of Tucson, Arizona. Ionatron markets their proprietary Laser-Induced Plasma Channel (LIPC) technology as "man-made lightning" and wants it to "replace guns as the weapon of choice in close-range defense". An electrolaser may be lethal or non-lethal depending on the voltage used.
Normally, blooming is the bane of laser defense technology - at power densities over about a megajoule per square centimeter, a laser strips electrons from the nuclei of air molecules, creating a plasma and redirecting energy away from the main beam. A number of strategies have been devised in attempts to work around this, including the use of large mirrors to project a focus on the target or laser pulses so short that blooming doesn't have time to occur. The electrolaser is the only directed-energy weapon that takes advantage of blooming rather than working against it.
The plasma region created by laser-induced blooming can be made highly conductive if enough electrons are knocked free from their atomic orbits. This provides the perfect conduit to run a current through to a target at moderate range. Using step-up transformers, an electrolaser system creates a high-voltage, low-amperage alternating current to feed into the plasma corridor. To create a complete circuit, there must be a way to make the current loop back around, which can be done through either an auxiliary laser beam or a sufficiently powerful ground current. Depending on its size and application, an electrolaser weapon may use a electromotive force somewhere between a thousand and a billion volts.
The electrolaser is one of several directed-energy weapons that certain military leaders and scientists have stated will be the inevitable next step in warfare. Electrolaser technology would be particularly useful for disabling electronics without the need to fire a shot. Pacifists hope that the non-lethal nature of some electrolaser systems will minimize casualties in conflicts of the future.