For Science!
From Blasters to Phasers: How Close Are We to Laser Guns?

CJ Miozzi | 28 May 2014 16:05
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Prospective Real-Life Laser Guns

So we've concluded that an actual laser gun would have no appreciable recoil, wouldn't emit a pew pew sound, would fire a projectile that may be invisible or unobservable, and cannot be dodged. Now, how close are we to having the technology to produce a practical, handheld laser gun?

Let's take a look at our top prospects.

Actual Lasers

We already have surgical lasers that can cut through human flesh, manufacturing lasers that slice through steel, and military lasers undergoing R&D that can detonate enemy missiles midair. Why haven't we already made a laser gun?

The problem largely lies in power consumption. A typical laser pointer uses 1-5 mW of power. A high-speed CD-RW burner uses 100 mW, 10 to 100 times that of a laser pointer. A surgical laser uses 30-100 W, up to 1000 times that of the burner. An industrial cutting laser could use up to 3000 W, 30 times that of the surgical laser. But for a laser to be classified as "weapons grade," it needs to reach the 100 kW threshold, over 30 times that of an industrial cutting laser. That's also the average power requirement of a couple dozen houses.

While we do presently have the technology to make such powerful lasers, both the laser device and the laser's power source are massive. The Boeing YAL-1, now decommissioned, was basically a flying laser gun housed within a jumbo jet, and it was "only" a megawatt-class laser that required two minutes to burn a hole through an incoming enemy missile.

At this point, it's just a matter of engineering and advances in miniaturization. If it seems hard to believe we'll ever get laser weapons down to handheld size, just remember that the first computer weighed more than 60,000 lb, measured roughly 8 by 3 by 100 feet, and consumed 150 kW of power.

Electrolasers

Basically a long-distance Taser, the electrolaser comes very close to Star Trek's phaser, complete with a stun setting. An electrolaser works by firing a non-deadly laser that rapidly heats and ionizes the air around it to form plasma, then sends an electric current down that plasma "channel" to the target.

Lightning works similarly. Though we don't have a great understanding of how the air initially ionizes, the lightning bolt travels along an electrically-conductive plasma channel that consists of a soup of positively charged air molecules and the electrons that have been stripped from them. Since the 1970s, researchers have been trying to use lasers to trigger lightning strikes.

No electrolasers have yet been built, but the science is there. Successful tests in 2012 have shown that an electric discharge can travel along a laser beam, and weaponized applications are in development. We're getting close to Unreal Tournament's lightning gun.

Pulsed Energy Projectile

Formerly under development by the U.S. military, the PEP was a weapon intended for riot control. It worked by emitting an infrared laser pulse that, upon striking a target, vaporized enough molecules to create a small explosion of plasma. The resulting pressure wave could stun and knock down a person, and the released electromagnetic radiation had proven to cause pain and temporary paralysis in animal experiments.

The weapon weighed about 500 lb and would have been vehicle-mounted at the time that it was canceled in the mid 2000s. According to the Department of Defense, "The research finally concluded that the PEP laser could not reproduce the required waveform characteristic of a non-lethal weapon."

While this is pure speculation, it is possible to interpret this to mean that the weapon caused damage to living beings, which would render it unusable for riot control purposes, and it was too cumbersome or fragile for battlefield deployment as a deadly weapon. Again, advances in miniaturization may one day lead to a revival of this technology as a portable, deadly gun.

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