Dear Evil Engineer: Has the time finally come for particle beam weapons?
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This week, the Evil Engineer advises an innovative young dictator who wants to be at the cutting edge of weaponry.
Dear Evil Engineer,
This week I inherited supreme leadership of a rogue state, my father having unfortunately decapitated himself during an accident trimming his nostril hairs. Under my leadership, I want my country to become the military superpower it is destined to be. My father had established a secret atomic weapons facility in his final years, but I’ve always considered nukes to be a bit passé. A bit too boomer, you may say.
I want to establish myself as an innovative 21st century dictator by building particle beam weapons for destroying enemy troops, vehicles, and weaponry. How should I begin?
A visionary villain
Congratulations on inheriting a rogue state! Honestly, of all the clients I’ve consulted for, dictators always seemed to be having the most fun. It’s probably something to do with the limitless wealth and godlike status that comes with the job.
As you no doubt already know, a particle beam weapon is essentially a weaponised, miniaturised particle accelerator: streams of charged particles are accelerated to near light speed by electromagnetic fields and directed at a target. Upon contact, vast amounts of kinetic energy are transferred to the target. This can cause it to ‘melt’ at sufficiently high energies, destroying structures such as cells and electronics.
The concept was suggested by Nikola Tesla in his later years, in the form of ‘death ray’ weapon, which uses a cathode ray tube-like device to accelerate a beam of mercury ions. He claimed that it would be able to bring down a fleet of 10,000 aeroplanes from 250 miles away.
Alas, after a period of international hysteria over the concept, Tesla never got the funding he needed to build his death ray. In the 1980s, the US Strategic Defense Initiative put into development a neutral particle beam weapon, which was launched into space in 1989 and successfully operated for four minutes. However, particle beam weapons have still, today, not progressed beyond this experimental stage.
It is generally accepted that neutral particle beams are the way forward, due to charged beams diverging rapidly due to mutual repulsion (‘blooming’) and reducing the intensity of the beam. In a neutral particle beam, atoms are ionised and accelerated and then electrons are injected back into the beam upon leaving the accelerator, neutralising the particles. Acceleration must take place within a vacuum in order to prevent the particles scattering from air molecules and damaging the accelerator.
The amount of damage a directed-energy weapon like a particle beam can do depends on the power of the beam, which can be found from the mass of particles and their velocity. The minimum beam power necessary depends entirely on what you want to use your weapon for: for instance, do you want to shoot enemy drones out of the air or do you only plan to use it over short ranges?
Existing directed-energy weapons are in the range of tens of thousands of kilowatts: the American ADS fires a 100kW millimetre-wave beam which can cause burns to the skin; the Turkish ALKA dual EM/laser system for use against combat vehicles reportedly has a power of 50kW; the LAWS laser weapon generated 33kW during testing; and Dynetics and Lockheed Martin are currently working on a 100kW laser weapon for the US Army.
Reaching this beam power would require a large particle accelerator: not LHC large, but certainly too large to mobilise. By design, particle accelerators must take up a lot of space: this allows for a long ‘runway’ of powerful magnets to boost the particles to near light speed, while a gently curved path for the particles also minimises energy loss via synchrotron radiation.
There has been limited progress made in miniaturising particle accelerators. Earlier this year, for instance, researchers at Stanford University demonstrated an accelerator on a chip which boosts electrons to a considerable speed, although falling far short of the speeds reached in full-sized particle accelerators.
So, if you’re happy with a very static particle beam weapon, there may be a path ahead. If you were hoping for a more mobile weapon you are out of luck for the time being, or indeed the foreseeable future. The US military appears to have come to a similar conclusion, having last year shelved active research into neutral particle beams because “it’s just not near-term enough” (it had previously hoped to test an anti-ballistic missile system based on the technology in space in 2023). Instead, the Pentagon is turning its focus back towards laser weapons systems.
You have not disclosed which rogue state you are leader of, but presumably you don’t have a higher defence budget than the US. So, myinclination is to say that a neutral particle beam weapon is probably not the best use of your resources.
Perhaps you could look into other directed-energy weapons instead, such as laser-based weapons? While laser beams have some downsides (e.g., can be deflected by mirrorlike surfaces) they have many advantages over hypothetical particle beams. For instance, a laser is more suitable for chopping through objects than a similarly-powered particle beam weapon due to a particle beam’s energy being scattered and partially deposited in a cone behind the target.
Laser weapons strike the perfect balance between forwardfacing and feasible: the weapon of choice for an innovative young supreme leader.
The Evil Engineer
PS: In 1978, a Russian particle physicist called Anatoli Bugorski took a proton beam to the head while working at the U-70 Synchrotron at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino. According to Bugorski, it was painless. Although the beam burned a hole right through his brain, he completed his PhD, and is still alive today.
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