Tuesday, September 10, 2013

I've Got The Power

Ray guns. Blasters. Death rays. Directed-Energy Weapons...

Call them whatever you like, one thing remains the same: pure destruction. I've devoted plenty of thought to death rays of all shapes and sizes and I think it's high time to paint a clear picture of the different kinds of energy weapons there are and what they're capable of.


As seen in: Basically Everything

Lasers have been a ubiquitous staple of science fiction since the 60's. Before the invention of lasers, fictional death rays were starting to fall out of fashion with the pulp magazines. Most writers saw them as a technical infeasibility that couldn't be built with then-current technology. But once lasers hit the market death rays of all sorts saw a huge surge in popularity as it was made a viable technology again.

Since then, there's been plenty of research done to make lasers a weapon of war. But even so, a lot of misconceptions about lasers persist. For one thing, a laser blast would not cauterize any wound they make. Surprising as it may be, getting shot with an intense laser would result in a shower of gore like something out of Scanners. First, your blood would boil, then explode as it's turned to steam. This would cause the surrounding muscle and organs to rip apart with the force of the blast. A real laser wound would look like someone popped a balloon filled with beef stew.

Ironically, this means that real lasers more dangerous than most fictional lasers.

Another thing is that movies like Star Wars depict laser blasts as a visible bolt of energy traveling to their target at speeds that are clearly below that of actual light, looking more like a tracer round than a light beam. This is not the case of course, lasers only have two speeds: Off and light speed.

The great thing about lasers is the amazing variety of colors they can come in. And not just the visual spectrum either; you can have a laser emit microwaves, infrared or even ultraviolet waves. Maybe someday, we'll be able to build lasers sophisticated enough to emit extremely high frequency waves like X-rays.

Although there's a practical limit to how high-frequency the beam can be. For instance, we'll probably never be able to build a laser that can emit gamma rays because it vibrates at such a high frequency. Gamma rays are so energetic that their wavelengths are actually smaller than hydrogen atoms. Because of this, we can't build a mirror smooth enough to reflect them, the bumpiness of its microscopic surface means it's impossible to focus them with any reliability.

Besides, if it was emitting harsh radiation like gamma rays you'd need to encase the whole thing in lead to have a hope of standing within a few miles of it. And with that in mind, is it really worth it?

And as a final note, lasers and sharks don't mix.

Lightning Guns

As seen in: Return to Castle Wolfenstein

It's a simple enough idea; a big electric coil with a handle, using thousands of volts of electricity to fry someone to death with. We already have big electric coils, so why isn't anyone using Tesla guns in real life?

Well, for a multitude of practical reasons, lightning guns would be basically worthless in real life. In order for an electric current to flow, there needs to be a difference in electric potential between the source and where you want the electricity to go. Basically, you need to have a positive and negative terminal for it to flow between. This is a problem of course, because barring a few unlikely circumstances, your enemy will probably be electrically neutral. Really, a Tesla weapon would only be usable in a very specific (very conductive) environment.

Still...a man can dream.

Plasma Guns

As seen in: Warhammer 40,000, Doom, Halo, Star Wars

As you know, plasma is the so-called fourth state of matter. One step above gas, plasma is gas so hot and energetic that the electron shell gets stripped off it's constitute atoms, resulting in a boiling mass of free electrons and atomic nuclei. Plasma makes up the interior of stars, it's what you get when you set off a nuclear bomb, so it was only a matter of time before someone suggested trying to shoot a glob of the stuff out a gun. And why not? We're talking megajoules of energy here, in the form of a gas so hot it's very atoms break down into a subatomic slurry of death.

But here's the thing to remember, it's still gas. A plasma gun is basically designed to shoot steam. Sure, it's extremely hot and conductive steam, but it's still going to dissipate the instant it leaves the barrel. It's even worse if you're trying to fire this in space where the plasma would try to fill up the surrounding vacuum.

But I know, what if we encased the plasma in a force field? That way we can ensure our little glob of star matter gets to the target without cooling down or dispersing. Alright cool, but if you can do that why not cut out the middle man and use your force field generator to rip the ship apart? If it can safely contain plasma at a distance, I think its safe to assume you can use your force field generator to tear hull plating like tissue paper.

Well, we don't have force fields in real life. And the more we try to justify a hypothetical plasma gun, the more we're forced to confront the fact that plasma, by it's very nature, is unsuitable for a weapon. A real plasma gun would have more in common with a blow torch than an assault rifle. Sure, there's been talk of using magnetic toroids to condense plasma enough to fire, but if you really need a huge room-sized collection of electromagnets to shoot your fancy gas I think it's time to rethink your priorities.

Sonic Weapons

As seen in: Warhammer 40,000

We've seen light, electricity and even hot gas used as a weapon. But what about sound?

This isn't as ridiculous an idea as it may seem. Plenty of experiments have been done to prove the deadly capabilities of potential sonic weapons, especially those that utilize infrasound. An infrasound gun would cause severe discomfort and anxiety at it's lowest setting, at it's highest it would probably cause internal hemorrhaging, or crush bones, sending vast blooms of energy flowing through the air. Imagine the loudest concert you've ever been to. Now imagine that several orders of magnitude louder. Sounds so loud they can kill.

About the only series I've seen that's seriously considered the idea is Warhammer, specifically the Slaaneshi Noise Marines. Using a weapon that looks like a futuristic electric guitar, they blast horrible distorted noise at the enemy, mulching their internal organs and shredding them with intense sound.

Honestly, the whole thing is so goofy it goes back around to being cool. What would be great is if your sonic weapon doubles as a boom box so you can kill people with specific songs, turning your face melters into literal face melters. Imagine what it would be like to listen to Fleetwood Mac at such high volumes that your head explodes.

Particle Beams

As seen in: Ghostbusters, Half-Life

Lasers are great and all, but photons have no mass and therefore no stopping power. What if we need a projectile with a little more oomph? Well, there's always subatomic particles and all the death and despair they can cause. Especially the more massive particles like protons, neutrons or tau leptons, dump them in a particle accelerator, point the exit port at the enemy and Zap: they're reduced to charcoal briquettes.

There are a couple downsides of course. For one, most particles you'll be working with are electrically charged, so the beam will dissipate the further it travels due to magnetic repulsion. The energy requirements are pretty extreme too, but given a few years and I think we'll sort out the problems with micro-accelerators. Really, it's a small price to pay for subatomic death rays.

There is one last little problem though, just a tiny one. You know, the fact that you're exposing yourself to ionizing radiation.

Yes, surprising as it might seem, holding an unshielded radiation source in front of your face isn't a good idea. The backwash from such a weapon could cause all sorts of nasty side effects; radiation sickness, cancer, genetic damage and sterility to name a few. And it's effects are just compounded the more you fire it, thereby exposing yourself to more gonad-searing radiation.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I didn't even consider this problem until Atomic Rocket pointed it out. But besides that, the matter of scaling down a particle accelerator is not as simple as it seems. You can't just spin them around like they're on a carousel. Keep in mind that this doesn't mean it's impossible to make a particle beam weapon, you just can't fire them without irradiating yourself. Maybe a sort of remote-controlled particle artillery cannon would make more sense, though you'd have to have a hazmat team on standby to move the stupid thing.

Heat Rays

As seen in: The War of the Worlds

This is the classic death ray; a continous beam of energy that burns, cracks, melts or vaporizes anything caught in it's path. The earliest example would of course be from The War of the Worlds where it was used to conquer the Earth and destroy it's puny Human natives. In the book, it's described as "a generator of intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light."

While this sounds good on paper it's a little difficult to justify the engineering side of it. For one thing, heat is not light and can't be expected to behave like it, so no bouncing heat off mirrors like a big tanning reflector. In fact, how do you even generate a "beam" of heat? Heat is energy radiated from atoms vibrating. So in the most literal sense, a heat ray would be more like a giant hair dryer blowing hot air on its victims.

It is possible to generate extreme heat at a distance though. To do this, we need a laser. Specifically, we need a laser that emits in the near infrared. The beam would be invisible, but would transfer vast quantities of energy to whatever it hits in the form of heat. Terrible, skin-peeling heat.

The great thing about lasers is their efficiency. A laser beam can carry energy over a huge distance and lose only a very small fraction of it as radiated heat, so you can expect the payload to arrive to the target with almost no loss of power. That all changes when it reaches a solid target of course, when all those photons slam into a solid mass and instantly convert to heat, melting anything in their path.

The Electrolaser

As seen in: Nothing, as far as I can tell.

This is a fairly new idea that hasn't seen any use in fiction. Basically, it's an intense laser beam that ionizes the air around it, turning it into a sheath of plasma around the beam. An enormous electric current is then sent down this plasma channel, using it like a giant lightning rod to blast whatever unfortunate rube is at the end of the beam with thousands of volts of electricity, frying him to a crisp.

An electrolaser is basically a giant overpowered taser. Or better yet, a lightning bolt you can aim.

There's been very little written on the subject of laser induced plasma channels so a lot of the mechanical details elude me. Does the target have to be conductive? What if I want to kill someone made of rubber? One thing's for certain, it needs air in order to create the plasma channel, so an electrolaser would be useless in space, much like a potential sonic weapon.

Still, it gets a ten out of ten for style.


mom said...

why is everything so science-y with you?
you make my eye balls sad.

Morris169 said...

What about a weapon like the Mega Buster? One that uses compressed solar energy?

Shadgrimgrvy said...

Solar energy is basically light, which can't really be compressed so much as polarized or focused through lenses. A Death Ray that uses solar power would probably look more like a big dish of polished mirrors, far different from what's depicted in Mega Man.

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