Speculative Futuristic Warfare: Directed-Energy Weapons


There is a good chance that the weapons of the future will still be projectile and/or combustion, and there are ways to make them terrifyingly awesome in fiction, but often the idea of a highly advanced weapon creates a deeper impact on the psychology of both the reader and the characters within the story. Enter directed-energy weapons or D.E.Ws. These are the weapons associated with science fiction in the form of lasers, phasers, and deadly tasers.

Ever wondered just how plausible those far-future guns are? Let’s take a look at the types of D.E.Ws that can possibly exist, some of which already do:

Weapons That Matter:

These are the guns that use and manipulate matter to create deathly ejections at near-instant speeds. Some are more plausible than others, but that doesn’t stop a story. We’ll be looking at particle accelerators, lasers, and plasma D.E.Ws.

The main purpose of particle beams is to overheat the target. This is accomplished by using atomic or subatomic particles that disrupt the atomic structure of the target. The U.S.A has an antiballistic missile system which uses such beams to destroy missiles by fluctuating the atomic structures, making the warhead unstable and causing a premature detonation.

Particle Accelerator Systems:

Particle accelerators (P.A), used today for scientific purposes, control a beam’s intensity through electromagnetism (E.M). The E.M field of the accelerator charges the particles in the air and directs these charges into a concentration, creating a beam. D.E.Ws with PA systems do not need ammunition; the air is the ammo. They’re even effective in space!

P.As accelerate charged particles using “dees” ― two D-shaped electrodes in a vacuum chamber ― to create a high-frequency voltage. The “dees” are positioned to face each other, divided by a narrow gap where the magnet is inserted, at the poles of the magnet (one “dee” at the positive/north and the other at the negative/south pole). This force gathers particles at the centre which are held by static magnetism then accelerated, forcing the particles to bend to a circle perpendicular to their direction of motion.

The “dees” must be as wide as the magnet to create a uniform field. It should look like the description below:

A circle magnet is placed horizontally, with its widest surface facing up (the widest surfaces being the poles) in a vacuum. One “dee” rests under the magnet while the other “dee” is on top of the magnet. The “dees” are then connected to a device that generates a voltage (a battery).

The voltage of the battery does not determine the intensity of the beam, rather, the diameter of the “dees” do. The mass of the particles and the strength of the magnet affects how much voltage is needed and the speed at which the beam travels. Ferromagnets aren’t powerful enough to eject the beam to light-speed but it can potentially travel at incredible speeds.

The magnets’ strength, thus the beam’s speed, increases the longer the particles are being accelerated. With that, a beam can potentially only travel around 15-20% the speed of light. If accelerated for long enough, in a large enough P.A, the beam can reach near light-speed velocity. For a gun-sized P.A, a realistic beam speed will be perhaps 0.002% the speed of light, which is about 6000 metres per second.

In practice, ionised hydrogen is used in prototype weapons today. Hydrogen is abundant in space and not so much in an Earth-like atmosphere, but nitrogen can also be ionised and used. However, excited nitrogen is very unstable, especially when exposed to excited oxygen and hydrogen which may make the weapon blow up. There will also need to be a neutralising mechanism that can de-excite ionised particles. For ionised nitrogen, the mechanism can be an ultra-violet (U.V) light. This mechanism, however, causes radiation and will present as a blue luminescent glow which may compromise the position of the wielder in a battle.

Excited particles cause a lot of friction due to their charges and are contained within a vacuum chamber of the P.A. If this friction escapes, an electrical charge will occur, shocking the weapon’s user. The particles must be able to feed directly into the P.A system to prevent reactions with particles in the air. Once the particles are charged, the vacuum is opened and the beam is expelled from the system, into the barrel, and towards the target. The beam’s expulsion retains the vacuum of the P.A. At a proper charge, the beam will travel and hit target quick enough that the excited nitrogen doesn’t have enough time to react with other particles that would affect the beam itself. At the release of the vacuum to expel the beam, the gun may jerk forward instead of recoil.

D.E.Ws can use, according to currently tested and used instruments, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen as ammunition. Each has its own properties on de-exciting. Hydrogen is de-excited by grounding the atoms (reducing the atomic orbital to its lowest, which can occur spontaneously or by inducing photons), oxygen de-excites by air pressure, and nitrogen by U.V or infrared light (it needs to expel a photon to de-excite). Hydrogen is the most stable, some isotopes more than others, because it doesn’t cause radiation and has few electrons and therefore generates far less static.

Magnetic storage rings will run along the barrel past the electromagnet to bunch up particles in what’s called “beam cooling”. This serves to keep particles from waywarding. Because the bunched particles in the storage rings travel at high speeds, the negative feedback (beam cooling) occurs instantly in relation to the speed of the charged particle beam ejected. Each ring will have a detector and kicker. The detector will note the deviation of particles and communicate it to the kicker, which provides voltage in order to bunch the particles.

The conductivity of the metal used for the electrodes should be in ratio to the magnetism of the material used for the magnet. The gas chamber has a limit on how many particles can be kept. It’s a vacuum and too much will cause a pressure explosion upon trauma or puncture. To monitor the tank, a gas meter needs to be present on the weapon.

In P.A weapons, the connective material between the battery and the electrodes can be a vulnerable point in the weapon, making it easy to damage with trauma, for instance, if it is dropped, but other measures can be placed to secure the connection and withstand trauma. Equally important in the construction of a P.A gun is the weapon’s material. It will need to be an insulator and nonstatic, which eliminates metals and plastics. Carbon fibre is a flexible, non-conductive, nonstatic, strong, and lightweight material.

Laser Weapons:

These can be a gas laser or a chemical laser.

Gas Lasers:

Gas lasers use compressed gas, that is allowed to expand, and heated either by free expansion, as with helium, or by combustion. The heated gas is led through a sub/supersonic nozzle which lowers the temperature until an equilibrium to vibrational state is achieved. It then flows through a tube of a certain length for a certain amount of time, this allows lower vibrates to relax while high vibrates remain.

The gas flows through a mirror where photons can meet with excited electrons and the energy level drops in the E.M field, allowing the creation of new photons that are identical but opposite and thus, the photons reach high energy levels. This gas returns to equilibrium (stated above) and heats up. This is when it is expelled as a laser. Such a D.E.W will need a gas chamber, a combustion chamber along with combustive material, an electromagnet, mirror/s, sub/supersonic nozzle, and the exit barrel.

Chemical Lasers:

Chemical lasers are achieved through, you guessed it, chemical reaction. The laser is fed with gaseous chlorine, molecular iodine, and an aqueous mixture of hydrogen peroxide and potassium hydroxide. The aqueous peroxide solution undergoes a chemical reaction with chlorine, producing heat, potassium chloride, and oxygen in an excited state. The excited oxygen transfers its energy to the iodine molecules, which are injected into the gas, through a rapid collision of the particles. The excited iodine then follows the same steps as the gas laser.

Lasers require extensive cooling (such as liquid helium) which can make it difficult to construct as a weapon. Chemical lasers also create products that must be cleaned out regularly. Lasers require a large amount of fuel which means that

  • the weapon has very few shots, or
  • the user must wear a fuel pack.

To prevent blooming (when energy is rapidly lost and creates a fog/glow that can compromise the wielder’s position), the laser must be pulsed with fast emissions.

Lasers and particle beams can be absorbed or scattered by natural visual obstructions such as rain, fog, snow, or dust. A laser’s wasted energy can also disrupt the immediate atmosphere around it, which can either work for or against the wielder. Laser beams run at infrared and cannot be seen with the naked eye, a handy aspect for sniping.

Plasma Weapons:

The beams in plasma D.E.Ws are created by exciting matter until it turns particles into a plasma state (superhot). Plasma guns use electrodes made of high conducting metal, such as copper. These electrodes form an arc of electricity between them when connected to a current. This creates thermal plasma as the gas is fed into the system. The gas can be nitrogen, oxygen, argon, helium, air, and hydrogen. These gases can also be fed in liquid form, though that might be cumbersome for the average human. The plasma will be accelerated and compressed with an electromagnet until it is dense and hot enough to cause a nuclear reaction then ejected in a short-lived but lethal shot.

Weapons of Sound Quality:

Maybe particles aren’t your thing and you’re more attracted to waves, if so then sound is the way to go, like noise guns that emit a high-frequency blast. This weapon is nonlethal but highly incapacitating. It bursts eardrums, causing the target a great deal of pain. At high enough frequencies it can cause heart issues. In mice it has shown that at a high enough frequency can be lethal; the intestines explode. Along with the sound generated by whichever means, radio frequency can be applied as a double-measure to ensure incapacitation.

Of course, in science fiction, anything is possible and anyone can dictate how plausible their story will be, and one can create a weapon out of anything (think antimatter, dark matter, and dark energy D.E.Ws). For me, the more plausible, the better so next I will be exploring mass-driver projectile weapons to balance things out and because there are some amazing concepts.

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