The Science of Particle-beam Weapons

Particle-beamParticle-beam weapons are the bread and butter of many a science fiction arsenal. I used them in my story Hostages, and already mentioned them once when discussing particle accelerators. I thought it was time for a more in-depth look at particle-beam weapons.

Particle-beam weapons?

Ray guns, phasers, and ion cannons are just a few names for particle-beam weapons. The idea of the things is simple: use electromagnetic fields to accelerate a charged particle, like in a particle accelerator, and shoot stuff with it.

Now, you may be thinking that particle accelerators are huge machines, and you’d be right. The Large Hadron Collider in Cern, for example, spans 27 kilometers. Of course, we don’t need to speed up particles to black-hole-creating speeds to make them do damage. It’s all about getting across enough kinetic energy to do damage.

Then the question becomes: can you build something like that? And of course: what kind of damage would it do?

Plasma

One avenue you can go with particle-beams, is the so-called plasma weapon. Plasma is a state of matter like gaseous, liquid, and solid. Wikipedia defines it as follows:

Plasma is a state of matter in which an ionized gaseous substance becomes highly electrically conductive to the point that long-range electric and magnetic fields dominate the behavior of the matter

That’s a mouthful, but the ionized part is important. To create an ionized gas, you either remove electrons from the atoms of the gas so it has too few, or add them so it has too many. This ionizes it, a.k.a. charges it. When charged, the gas can be accelerated by magnetism, and is usually super-heated. Then you can use it for beams.

Creating plasma is something we can actually do using the current state of technology. One application of plasma is in the plasma torch. Stronger plasma torches can cut through some 15 centimeters of steel, so a human arm or leg is not a problem. However, the range of a plasma torch is low. The plasma torch is basically a step up from a knife, but nowhere near an actual ray gun.

Neutral beams

The problem with ionized gas, like plasma, is that the particles are charged, meaning they repulse each other. If your ray gun fires plasma, the charged particles will start to move away from each other as soon as they exit the barrel.

One way to get around this, is to remove electrons from a gas, accelerate it, then re-add the electrons. This is called a neutral particle beam. This too, is within our technological grasp. However, not in hand-gun form.

The chances of building a ray gun are not looking good. But okay, if we do manage, what would it do?

Effects of particle beams

As I wrote above, we have a working plasma torch. If you look on-line, you can probably find videos and pictures of the kind of damage a machine like that can do to the human body. Personally, I didn’t look for it.

A plasma torch super heats a stream of charged particles and normally cuts through steel. So, it should cut through flesh and bone as easily, and will probably sear the wound shut immediately.

If you look at more high energy particles in a beam, the effects are slightly different. There was actually a man who accidentally stuck his head in a particle accelerator. A beam of protons burned a line through his head, killing the tissue, but did not — in fact — kill him.

So, if you’re shot by a particle beam, it will kill your tissue by burning through it. Basically, a lot of energy (kinetic/heat) ends up shot into your cells in the beam’s path.

Clearly, the effects of a particle-beam weapon are not pleasant.

Usefulness

One subject I’d like to touch on is the practicality of a particle beam hand weapon. You see, like many technologies, even if we manage to create it, it might not be economically viable.

A prime example of this problem is the Concorde airplane. This airplane could make the trip from Paris to New York in three-and-a-half hours, more than twice as fast as other airplanes, but the tickets were so prohibitively expensive that the Concorde stopped operating in 2003.

The same may well apply to particle-beam hand guns. You might be able to make them, but if they are extremely expensive compared to regular handguns, without offering some other advantage, then they’ll never get off the ground.

Conclusion

Particle-beam weapons are potentially within our grasp, but the cost-benefit isn’t worth it at the moment, compared to other weapons. Hand gun particle-beam weapons don’t exist at all.

Ah well, there’s always science fiction books.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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