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Corporations have been funding research into weapons that fire plasma to cause severe burns, melting, and even death, though no practical examples have been produced. As with the case of laser guns, plasma guns would require more power than a handheld device can currently supply.
Even with a portable fusion reactor, though, plasma guns have other technological hurdles to overcome. Until some way is found to make a plasma beam self-sustaining over a longer period of time, it would be stopped by simple air resistance; the resulting gun would be similar to a blow torch. Generating a channel with a laser beam, as with the electrolaser, could be a way to circumvent this problem.
But nature herself seems to already have the solution: ball lightning, a phenomenon that we still don't understand. One theory is that ball lightning is a spinning ring of plasma, which researchers have been able to reproduce in labs.
The plot thickens when we consider that a U.S. government research project called MARAUDER - an acronym for Magnetically Accelerated Ring to Achieve Ultra-high Directed Energy and Radiation - was successful in producing rings of plasma and balls of lightning that allegedly exploded with devastating effects upon striking a target. The project was first reported in 1993 and classified later that year. No further details about project MARAUDER have surfaced since.
Both Star Trek and Star Wars describe their phaser and blaster as particle-beam weapons that fire atomic or subatomic particles at near-light speeds, an idea founded in firm science. Imagine taking a particle accelerator like CERN's Large Hadron Collider and weaponizing it.
A particle-beam weapon is similar in concept to a railgun, which uses electromagnetism to launch projectiles at hypersonic speed. Hurl a physical object at someone with enough speed and it'll cause damage. Fire a stream of subatomic particles at near-light speeds and, given sufficient power and time, you can tear through virtually any physical material.
Again, a key problem lies in miniaturizing the technology. Ongoing research is seeking to apply military use to particle-beams, but we're a long way off from handheld weapons.
Active Denial System
Finally, we arrive at our most promising lead. Also known as the Heat Ray, ADS is an actual nonlethal weapon developed by the U.S. military that was deployed in Afghanistan in 2010, but withdrawn before it saw combat. Mounted on a humvee, the weapon heats a target with microwaves that excite the water and fat molecules in the skin.
How effective is ADS? Most human test subjects reached their pain threshold within only three seconds of exposure, and none could endure more than five seconds. "For the first millisecond, it just felt like the skin was warming up," said one of the test subjects. "Then it got warmer and warmer and you felt like it was on fire... As soon as you're away from that beam your skin returns to normal and there is no pain."
Both the U.S. Marines and police are working on portable versions of the Heat Ray. While a far cry from a flashy laser gun, this is the closest thing we have to a functional, practical, directed energy weapon.