Laser setup in dark lab

‘Laser AK-47’ could set people on fire from a kilometre away, report claims

Image credit: Dreamstime

According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), a group of Chinese researchers has developed a handheld laser weapon capable of burning targets a kilometre away and powered with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

The prototype weapon has much in common with the blasters seen in Star Wars and similar laser-based weapons featuring in other action and science fiction films.

Named the ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle, the weapon has been under development at the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics at the Chinese Academy of Science, Shaanxi province. It weighs 3kg – approximately the same as an AK-47, the most popular assault rifle in the world – and could be mounted on vehicles.

It is allegedly capable of inaudibly producing an invisible, single energy beam which can pass through glass and reach a target up to a kilometre away. The beam is said to be capable of causing the “instant carbonisation” of human tissue and could in theory burn through a human target if they remained still.

An anonymous research scientist involved in the project told SCMP that it could “burn through clothes in a split second […] if the fabric is flammable, the whole person will be set on fire”, and adding that “the pain will be beyond endurance”.

The weapon fires more than 1000 quick shots on a single charge and is powered with a lithium ion battery pack. It is unclear how a compact, gun-sized weapon powered by what is essentially a smartphone battery is capable of generating laser beams so intense that they pass through windows and burning through clothing.

It has long been considered fruitless to create laser-based weapons (particularly handheld weapons), due to the necessary size and power of equipment that can generate laser beams capable of penetrating clothing and causing some physical harm. While weaker laser beams are capable of causing some damage when aimed at the eyes due to their extreme sensitivity to light, these beams can be easily and painlessly blocked with a hand or with protective gear.

However, Wang Zhimin, of the Research Centre for Laser Physics and Technology at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Sciences said that technological advances in recent years meant that smaller and more powerful devices could be built than before, just as mobile phones have been scaled down.

The group is preparing to scale up for mass production of the weapon, which will likely be issued first to anti-terrorism squads of the Chinese Armed Police, the SCMP reports; only Chinese military and police will have access to the weapons.

Although classified as non-lethal, it has been suggested that it could be used to fire through windows during hostage situations to temporarily disable the kidnappers, to set fire to protest banners or the clothing or hair of protestors, or in covert military operations given the virtually undetectable beam.

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