07 August 2011

FWS Armory: Plasma Weaponry

What Terminator movie would be complete without the those masterful scenes where bright bolts of plasma race across the darkened post-nuclear war hellscape as a combat Terminator model crushes a human skulls? Not a good one, and science fiction has taken note of plasma-based direct energy weapons (DEW) since that iconic film of 1984, and plasma-based weaponary exploded after that film, and became a hot property in sci-fi for a number of years. However, too many writers/creators understand what a plasma DE weapon is or what it does, and this has created a fair amount of confusion. Well, be confused no longer, FWS is here with another armory blogpost on the reality of plasma DE weaponry. If you are revisiting this blogpost since its original posting back in August of 2011, I've gone back and reworked it to conform to my current layout. Enjoy!

What is Plasma?
Plasma is the so-called "forth state of matter", and is basically, an ionized gas that easily conducts electric current, allowing for greater effect from forces of EM. William Crookes first discovered plasma in 1879, but the term "plasma" was gave by Irving Langmuir in the early 20th century. Plasma is very common, and according to a few science websites, "plasma is the most common form of matter in the visible universe, comprising more than 90%."  Here on this planet, we see plasma everyday: lightning, the sun, used in arc-welding torches, neon signs and high-end television screens. Given it common nature, and that humanity dose use plasma for everyday uses, could it be used on the future battlefield?

The Reality of Plasma-based Weaponry
Science Fiction writers and creators would like you to believe that plasma DEW systems could be used in the same manner as an AK-47 or even a particle/laser guns. However that is far from the truth...If I were to say to you the words: "hot excited gas gun", then you might think I was making a 8th grade fart joke...but that, boiled down, this is what plasma weaponry is: Steam Gun...just a really, really hot steam. The goal of any weapon, is to transfer its lethal energy to the target and destroy the target. The truth is that according to hard science, plasma energy is not as likely a candidates for weaponization as lasers or particle beams. That is mainly due to the grim reality of what plasma is and how it could be controlled. Given its properties, plasma could be used to kill someone give the thermal energy, however, the real issue lays in getting the plasma to the target. Plasma is lower density that the air, creating resistance issues, to the degree of being dissipated in atmosphere and/or floating, after a very short range....like less than 50 centimeters! These are not speeding blue bolts, that we have seen in Terminator .
If one makes the plasma discharge more density and ramps up the pressure, according to an article I read on this issue, it would require pressure that needs a containment tank equal to a thousand times the density of steel (http://www.stardestroyer.net/Empire/Essays/PlasmaWeapons.html)!
Some writers have gone around this issue of encapsulation the superheated gas in a eletro-magnetic sabot, much like the shell on a paintball, keeping the mineral oil paint contained. Magnetic containment exist in the real world, they are called Tokamak that stores the plasma in a torus, at 150 million degrees Celsius, and they are massive and extremely complex. Not really something you drag through the mud of a combat zone.
(LINK: http://www.iter.org/mach). Another method explored by sci-fi writers and scientists, who working on the Sliva Star Program, was using laser to  create tunnels though the atmosphere, to funnel the plasma energy to their target. But sadly those are not likely to be used in a field-grade weapon due to their complexity and economic cost.

Have there been attempts at real-world plasma weaponry?
Yes, most are associated with the US SDI or "Star Wars" program of the 1980's and early 90's. The idea was to use plasma DEW for inception and destroy incoming missiles. The most famous of these is Shiva Star, funded by the US Air Force up until 1995. This project was ended because the goal of being able to fire "plasma bullets" at 3,000 Km/s and the plasma bullet was to be equal to five pounds of TNT was unable to be met. It was discovered that these plasma bullets were unstable in the atmosphere and broke apart prior to inspection...kind of the whole point of the weapon. Lasers were fooled around with to form a passage through the atmosphere to allow the plasma bullet easier access, but nothing really came of it.
To sum up how little is thought of plasma being a realistic DEW systems by hard sci-fi, the atomic rockets website barely mentions it, and calls it unworkable (http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/sidearmenergy.php).
Possible uses of Hard Science Plasma-based Weaponry
Maybe, that is the key word for any real use of plasma energ  in a lethal military device. It is possible for plasma to be used as flamethrower like device, especially in underground complexes, were the hot gas (hehe) would rise the temperate...like smoking someone out. Another use could be for explosives medium in grenades or airborne bombs, however, given the technical issues with keeping plasma stable and its effectiveness in-atmosphere, good old white phosphorus works just as well. 
So, the bottom line is that plasma would, mostly likely, would not be used in lethal application in the a military setting.    

Plasma DE Weapons in Sci-Fi
"Hey, just what you see, pal!"
When researching the topic, It was difficult to come across much historical evidence on when plasma weaponry began to enter into the common usage in sci-fi works. It seems that Star Trek: TOS: Balance of Terror (1966) was one of the first, if not the earliest use of plasma-based weaponry. This came in the form of blob-like plasma torpedo fired at the Enterprise. Then it seems that plasma weapons do not to gain speed until after the original Terminator (phased plasma rifle in a 40 watt range) and in the  Traveler RPG games. With the rise, in the 1980's, of RPGs, military sci-fi, Anime/Manga, and the effect of the Terminator films, plasma weaponry started to replace the more common laser blaster as the choice in directed energy weapons. Plasma weapons are currently a staple of sci-fi shooter-themed video games.  However, these reported plasma weapons were little more than re-badged laser blasters, little technical mention was made of their inner-workings. One common element seems to pop up with fictional plasma weaponry, overheating and venting.   

Advantages of Plasma Weaponry
  • Near-miss is good enough for lethal effect
  • Psychological effect
  • They make pretty colors...

Disadvantages of Plasma Weaponry
  • Current ceramic technology, like the Space Shuttle tiles, are about to block the thermal effect of plasma
  • A real plasma weapon would set forest, fields, and civilians on fire, this would also create havoc for both sides of the conflict.
  • Near 100% fatal results for GSW, serious loss to combat power and morale at home.
  • Complex weapon that requires its fuel source to be kept in a power-intense containment magnetic bottles.
  • Weapon could be a liability to their users if hit or loss of containment (BOOM).
  • Heat generated by the weapon's use that may be a danger to the operator
  • Atmospheric blooming (lack of range and effectiveness)
  • Slow speed of the bolt-blob of plasma
  • Buoyancy of the bolt-blob of plasma being more of balloon, than a bullet.  
  • Highly dense, far-future alloy, needed for the weapon's high pressure containment needs
The Effect of Being Hit by a Plasma 'Bolt'
Let us say that plasma DEW could be accomplished and fielded by a major military power. Okay, then imagine those plasma DEW systems being in the hands of soldiers, gunships, and tanks...like Terminator, then imagine the battlefield: bolts of blazing supra heated energy flying around, like the scenes from Terminator 2. Imagine soldiers, all armored up, assaulting towards an enemy position. One of the enemy tanks fires a plasma bolt from its main gun, roughly the same size as a 105mm shell is today. This bolt MISSES the infantry, but the entire platoon bursts like party balloons into a fine pink mist and burned military camo clothing. That is the devastating effect of an object that burns at about 250,000 to 500,000 degrees. Here is the quote from Christoper Shield's Terminator 2029 website to explain:
Wounds from plasma weapons would be akin to severe burns with most organic material of the primary wound site being vaporized. Fluids would flash to steam, organic material would turn to ash and most direct hit plasma wounds would be fatal in nature. Effects from the "splash" of a plasma weapon would consist of severe burns that might be capable of "burn through" of soft targets. Regardless, wounds received from plasma based weapons would take a long time to heal and require massive amounts of attention. Near misses might produce severe burns and heat trauma while fragments from large diameter bore weapons might be crippling or lethal with splash-like side effects. The explosive decoupling of large amounts of free standing matter (ground, terrain, armor plate, etc.) would also produce high speed lethal fragmentation in a large area around the point of impact.
This can be seen in te the first Terminator movie when Kyle and Jan Ferro are on an HK tank hunting mission, and the HK tank turns its chain-plasma gun on her, and fires, violently transforming Miss Ferro into a shower of pink mist. 
Here is the link:

Detailed Examples of Plasma DEW in Sci-Fi
There are a few sci-fi works that detail the inner-workings of their plasma weaponry, here are main three that I know about, and if available, I took the direct text of the author's own words.

Skynet and Human Resistance Plasma weapons from TERMINATOR Universe
While the Terminator movies, TV show, and comics give little technical information on the operation of Skynet's main armament for its HK and Terminator units. The real work on the plasma DEW systems of the Terminator series was done by Christoper Shield's excellent Terminator site, and is out-and-out a masterful work of sci-fi art and love. He details the plasma weapons seen on screen, even accounting for the ejecting shells seen in the dark future scenes in Terminator 2. To ruggedize these directed energy weapons, he details that Skynet moved away from heavy bottles encased the slush hydrogen into 'cartridges' that fires 5mm, 6mm, or even 7mm plasma pulses. This allows for the plasma weapons of Terminator universe to be portable and not be recharged via a massive hydrogen tank. In addition, he also shows the evolution of the first generation phased plasma weaponry to the "current" seventh generation.
A question that was raised by a regular reader of FWS, Mr. Phoenix, about why Skynet would design hand held phased plasma weapons that could be used by the human resistance? Skynet, according to various sources, including Mr. Shields website, did not set out to make the Terminator. It was only when, while Skynet was sealzing resources and rebuilding production facilities, it ran into human survivors. Skynet hot back with aerial and ground Hunter-Killers, but these human gurrillas soon hid into underground structures, that the bigger machines could not go.
That's when Skynet designed the inflitrator units, all known as Terminators. The Termiantor had to pass for human, so said Kyle Reese, and Skynet saw the wisdom of having infantry units designed to go were humans went, and move how they moved. Is not mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery? To arm them for the battles in the ruins, they needed handheld plasma weaponry. Thus, forcing Skynet R&D towards micronization of their larger scale phased plasma weapon around 2004.

The Handheld PPG from Babylon 5
I watched B5 throughout high school, and it was a nice change from the domination of the Star Trek TV shows. One of the more interesting elements, was the sidearm  of the Earth Alliance, the PPG (Phased Plasma Gun, gee, I wonder where they got that from?). The PPG pistol was about the size of a Walter PPK, and it was nearly comically in the hands of the actors, but the PPG  had a neat trick. The moment the gun was raised to a certain heighten, it readied itself, with a unique noise, that basically said: "I'm ready to rock, mother fucker!" When the pistol was fired, the local space around the stubby barrel was distorted, like a heat mirage.
Here is the data from the babylon5 wiki site:
A PPG (an acronym for Phased Plasma Gun) is a type of weapon that fires a bolt of energized, super-heated helium sheathed in an electromagnetic field and propelled by an opposed magnetic field. On impact the plasma bolt dissipates and discharges it's thermal and kinetic energy.
When fired in an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere, the intense heat of the super-heated helium plasma projectile causes a distinctive optical distortion as it expands the air around it. PPGs are the side-arm of choice for most space based fighting forces as the plasma bolt is effective against organic targets and thin metals but will dissipate quickly when striking denser surfaces. This means that while in a pressurised environment, a stray shot will not cause a hull breach as is the risk with Slugthrowers.[2] Sustained fire will however burn though some thick metals but alloys with a high heat dissipation rate such as beryllium will simply ricochet the shot.

Colonial Marine Plasma DEWs From ALIENS: the Colonial Marines Technical Manuel

The M577 APC mounted plasma DEW Cannon:
The initial production M577A mounts two 20 mW Boyars PARS 150 phased plasma cannon. The power source is a 6 mW hydrogen fuel cell capable of powering 3,000 firings before refuelling. The fuel cell drives a homopolar fast-discharge generator which stores power until it has sufficient energy to pulse the plasma gun's laser. When the laser is fired, it creates an ionized trail in the atmosphere which is charged by the gun's electromagnetic coil to form a solenoidal magnetic tunnel. The ammunition - Cadmium Telluride pellets of around five grams mass - is fed mechanically into the tunnel, where it is vaporized by the laser beam into a superheated plasma, which is accelerated by the magnetic coil to velocities in the region of 5,000 m/s. The plasma travels the tunnel until it impacts the target at a focussed point, using its considerable kinetic and thermal energy for maximum effect penetration. Because of the power usage, both guns fire in sequence rather than simultaneously; thus, cyclic rate of fire (allowing for adequate cooling between shots) is 40 rpm. Each gun carries up to 1000 rounds of ammunition. Maximum effective range is dependent upon the ambient atmospherics, but in ideal conditions can be up to 4,000 m.

The M78 Plasma Infantry Gun:
The M78 PIG (Phased-plasma Infantry Gun) is a man-portable anti-armor weapon. Weighing 15.2 kg in its entirety, the PIG consists of two parts: the gun and its power pack. The M78 is a 15 mW phased plasma system firing vaporized Cadmium Telluride pellets from a 30 round feed. The fast-discharge system powering the gun's laser and magnetic coil is fed from a 4 mW hydrogen fuel cell in the power pack. The firing cycle takes 3 seconds, most of which time is taken up by the powering up of the discharge generator. The penetrating power of the system is considerable, and it is claimed to be able to breach the flank armor of a heavy tank at 1,000 m.

Examples of Soft-Science Plasma Weaponry in Sci-Fi:

The Covenant from the HALO Universe

Can I get an "Wort! Wort! Wort?!"
Since the Covenant "borrowed" their technology from the Forerunners, their entire military offensive arms seem based around plasma DEW technology. In the HALO games and novels, humans can and do use the plasma weapons with great effeteness, however, they cannot recharge the weapons. The blazing hot blue or green bolts of hydrogen are shown damaging objects and enemies via thermal damage. Often when marines get hit with plasma bolts, they scream "its burns!" Like a majority of fictional plasma DEW, they overheat and require a cool-down period with vents that pop open. I have to say, that Bungie created in the Covenant arms one of the best looking alien weaponry in sci-fi.

Several websites say that the Transformers used plasma weaponry, while others talk of some sort of laser. The toyline for the third movie does have a Bumblebee plasma cannon.  

The Invid from the ROBOTECH Universe
Several of the Zentraedi mecha and their personal weaponry is said to be based off plasma weaponry, however, since I worship this series, I know that through the 1st Robotech War, the Zentraedi talk of laser bombardment. However, the main users of plasma-based weapons in Robotech were the Invid, their shock troopers carried twin plasma cannons that doled out plasma discs of death.

The Yautjan Shoulder-Cannon from the Predator Univserse
While the Yautja warriors pride themselves on using anicent field tradecraft to stalk then kill their prey, the race does use futuristic DEW systems. Namely, the should mounted, blow dryer-like 'plasma caster' mounted to their shoulder or an emergency backup mounted to their forearm. The should mounted weapon unit is linked with targeting equipment in their helmets, and makes for a lethal (and iconic) weapon system. The weapon does massive thermal damage at close range, but we can see that Arnold avoids become a burnt piece of toast when the hunter misses him by mere inches. Must be all of the muscles...

The Romulan Plasma Torpedo from Star Trek: TOS
During the 1966 episode, "balance of terror", the Enterprise is attacked by a cloaked Romulan Warbird with its plasma blob torpedoes. This maybe the first sci-fi product to feature plasma-based weaponry.

The Jem 'Hadar Plasma Carbine from Star Trek: DS9
I have read that the wardogs of the Dominion, the Jem'Hadar, use a plasma-based carbine weapon, that also prevents clotting of blood and closing of wounds. The bolt from these carbines are like white balls of energy that seem to have heavy kinetic force.  

The EM-33 Plasma Pistol from Star Trek: Enterprise
When Earth, under UESPA, began its NX project, their explorers and soldiers (security personnel and MACO) were armed with plasma-based weaponry. During the pilot episode of Enterprise, Archer and company used their EM-33 plasma pistols. These are quickly abandoned for the new Phased pistols. When the Xind attack Earth, Captain Archer puts an Earth military SOF unit, MACO, who are armed with plasma-based pistols, carbines, and sniper rifles. The badass looking EM-33 plasma blaster was based on the massive Desert Eagle pistol, and it was favorite among the creators of Enterprise.  

The PGMP from Traveller RPG
In one of the pioneering sci-fi RPG's, plasma gun-man portables are used only by soldiers were combat armor and only when stationary. The PGMP draw supra heated hydrogen from a backpack unit at itself is a micro-fusion power unit (!). Yeah...don't wanna be next to one of those.

The Imperium Plasma Weapons from the Warhammer 40K Universe
In the video games and RPGs, the Chaos Marines and Imperium of Man forces use plasma cannons, that fire a projection of supra heated plasma in a bluish haze, as seen in Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior. Their verison of the plasma cannon overheats, and during the Horus Hersey of the 31st millennium, plasma weaponry was still in its early stages, and at times, these weapons exploded. When the revolt failed, and the traitors escaped to the Eye of Terror to be come servants to the Chaos Gods, they took their overheating plasma with them. If you have played or will play, Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior, you can see the limitations of a low-velocity plasma stream...I must admit, I never liked the plasma cannon in  Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior, I normally used the Tau Rail cannon.

The Plasma Pistol from I am Number Four (2011)
Nigel recently watched I am Number Four, and informed me that the hot chick in the film uses a plasma DEW pistol. So, here is the hot chick and her even hotter plasma pistol.

The Plasma Cutter from the Dead Space Universe
In the video game Dead Space, one of the miners' tools is the 211-V Plasma Cutter, that fires bolts of superheated matter, which is retrofitted to kill space zombies in the game. Nice, its now in my Zombie bug-out-bag, next to my AK-47.   

Metroid Prime
That armored badass babe Samus Aran, our second favorite space hunter, next to Boba Fett, welds an arm-mount plasma cannon. Hot chick in armored power suit coupled with an plasma cannon is epicness.

Here is the information on the Plasma rifle from the battletechwiki site:
The Plasma Rifle was developed by the Capellan Confederation. Based upon their man-portable version, the Confederation was able to create what is essentially a massive Flamer Plasma weapons use the power of the fusion engine or power amplifiers to power an electromagnetic accelerator that fires a stream, pulse or toroid of plasma (i.e. very hot, very energetic excited matter). The plasma is created by using a lasing process to flash cartridges of plastic foam into white-hot projectiles that cause thermal as well as physical damage. The primary damage mechanism of these is thermal transfer; the weapon causes serious burns, and often immediate death of living creatures, and melts or evaporates other materials. The plasma weapons may also have a significant kinetic energy component, that is to say the ionized material is projected with sufficient momentum to cause some secondary impact damage in addition to causing high thermal damage.

The Plasma Guns from the DOOM Unvierse
The Doom games feature several plasma-based guns, and being of the most played games of all time, I believe it spread the gospel of how plasma guns should look, even if its wrong. There were two plasma guns featured, one being the plasma cannon and the other was the BFG-9000, it was rumored that it was plasma-based mega-damage weapon.

The Plasma AutoRifle from the Timesplitters Games
There is an "plasma autorifle" in several of the games, and like a majority of the plasma DEW, it overheats.

Plasma Guns from the Stargate Universe
During the war with the religious nutjobs known as the Ori, the Asgard upgrade Earth's 304-class warships with their plasma DEW systems, that appears on screen, as more of a bean than bolt. Prior to the Ori threat, the few space-going battleships were armed with nuclear missiles, and rapid-fire rail guns, and the Asgard had refused to give the Earth forces any advanced offensive weapons.  


The best essay on the military-use of plasma:

The best site for plasma-based weaponry and the weapons of Terminator!


  1. Finally, the Plasma Weapons post!! Nothing says "Get the %$*^ out of my airlock, you filthy alien scum!!" like the charging up sound of a EM-44 Phased Plasma Gun!!

    I agree with most of your points. Plasma guns are probably infeasible, since the plasma will bloom and dissipate a short distance from the gun, and techniques to extend the range of plasma bolts are speculative at best. Most SF likes to use the term "plasma weapon" as another name for laser or particle guns- which they never presented in a realistic manner to begin with.

    There have been some real attempts to create plasma weapons however- the most notable being Shiva Star, as you noted in your post. Another was Casaba-Howitzer, the powerful weapon of the battleship version of my favorite concept spaceship ever- Project Orion Nuclear Pulse Propulsion. Casaba-Howitzer was basically a directed-energy nuclear shaped charge derived from the shaped charges the Project Orion ship intended to detonate underneath its pusher plate. The Casaba-Howitzer weapon would have been fired from a tube, shot to a safe distance away from the ship, and then detonate, spearing the enemy spacecraft on a lance of nuclear fire- plasma!! Now, that is badass. Check out the book Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship by George Dyson, son of the physicist Freeman J. Dyson to find out more about Casaba-Howitzer and Project Orion.

    I disagree that plasma bolts will be slow-moving blobs. Such a blob would radiate its heat and cool down quickly, and its low momentum wouldn't even overcome air resistance, necessitating some form of propulsion for the plasma bolt. Even if you got such a plasma blob weapon to work, it wouldn't be very effective- the blob wouldn't penetrate a target. Instead, a real life plasma weapon would probably shoot a high velocity stream of hot plasma down a laser induced plasma channel. Good names for a weapon like this could be LIPW- Laser Induced Plasma Weapon or Phased Hyper-Velocity Plasma Weapon.

    To be continued...

    Christopher Phoenix

  2. "A real plasma weapon would set forest, fields, and civilians on fire, this would also create havoc for both sides of the conflict." Yeah- missed shots from my AR-15 don't set the countryside on fire. I still want a phased plasma carbine, however. Just what you see, pal. ; )

    Near 100% fatal results for GSW, serious loss to combat power and morale at home- isn't that the point of weapons? Every time an extremely effective weapon has been introduced, some people will be horrified by the destructive potential and either try to ban its use- or at least limit its use on humans- or declare that warfare has become to destructive to continue.

    When the crossbow was introduced, the Pope banned its use on Christians. What would he have though of modern day assault rifles and or machine guns? Fast moving bullets, each with far more power than a crossbow bolt, sprayed all over the battlefield. That isn't even counting in explosives. Or nerve gas.

    The people of the Middle Ages, who's conception of warfare was hitting each other with big, dull metal sticks until someone died, would have been horrified by modern warfare. They probably would have believed it to be a vision out of Hell, not the future of combat. The destructive potential of an AK-47 and a few grenades far outstrips the firepower of a soldier in the Middle Ages. Future firearms will have even more portable firepower.

    Benjamin Franklin believed that aerial warfare would be so terrible, nations would have to find other ways to solve their disagreements. Well, that hasn't happened. No reason to think space or plasma warfare will change anything either.

    To be continued...

    Christopher Phoenix

  3. Even if future soldiers use plasma weapons, that won't end warfare. It may cause powered armor suits to become the norm, just to give the average soldier a fighting chance, but warfare will not end. The character of warfare changes, but the people will always have reasons to fight- that will never change, unless we eliminate the almost universal belief that your rights are just as important as everyone else's. Not more important, as important. Warfare is means of inflicting your will one someone else- even if your will is to not have someone else inflict their will on you- WITH PHASED PLASMA WEAPONS IN SPAAAACCEE!!!!!!

    This is not a popular view, but it is cold hard reality. Not pretty, not nice, not the way most people want the world to work. The "ain't going to study war no more" people miss the principal reason why humans study warfare- other than imposing our wills on others- is to defend ourselves from others who want to take our stuff or our lives. As they say- the people who beat their swords into plowshares will plow for others, if they are lucky enough to be enslaved instead of being killed.

    Settling your disagreements by mutual discussion is nice, but sometimes people- or aliens- just won't be reasonable. The Federation out of Star Trek tried to settle disagreements by diplomacy, but they were backed up by photon torpedoes and phasers. Starfleet was a military force, after all. Every sentient being needs to know how to defend itself- otherwise they run the risk of becoming victims. If you want peace, prepare for war. My favorite proverb relating to this is the African proverb, "Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far."

    No matter how much time passes, as long as humans are around, warfare of one form or another is a possibility, and even the most peace-loving civilization needs a big phased-plasma boom-stick. Warfare and violence is as much a part of human civilization as language and love, and if you could eliminate the belief that your rights are as important as everyone else's, what you have left won't be very human.

    Humans may go to war not just over their own rights, but over the rights of their neighbors or friends- when you feel that every human deserves respect, and someone doesn't show that respect to your neighbors, what do you do? Suit up and grab a good blaster to TEACH the aggressors to have some respect. Even respecting the rights of every human being could give you compelling reasons for violence.

    Thank you for answering my question about why Skynet designed portable plasma rifles- although I still remember reading that prototype plasma weapons had been designed before Skynet rose to power, so where are they in Terminator Salvation? Probably the first plasma weapons we will design, if we can get them to work, will be large mounted weapons, not portable carbines or tiny PPG's.

    I'd love to see plasma weapons on the wall of the gun store, along with some M41A's and EM-33's. Maybe someday, someone will get one to work. Shiva Star seems to suggest it might be possible, and plasma physics is complex. Perhaps someday someone will do things with plasma they say is impossible today.

    Christopher Phoenix

  4. When discussing weapons in science fiction, a plasma weapon is a type of ray-gun that fires a stream, bolt, pulse, or toroid of plasma (very hot ionized gas). These weapons typically cause damage by thermal transfer, causing serious burns and immediate death of living creatures and melting or vaporizing other materials. Plasma weapons are very common in a lot of modern SF works. Most of the time, they are merely stand-ins for laser blasters that shoot pretty colors. Hard SF does not think much of plasma weaponry, as you mentioned- but could plasma weaponry ever be feasible?

    What is the difference between a particle beam weapon and a plasma weapon? Both shoot ions at a target. It seems that it is the internal heat energy of the hot plasmoid that damages the target with plasma weapons- not the forward kinetic energy, as in an ion cannon. Most plasma weapons in SF shoot subsonic "bolts" that travel much slower than the particles of hot plasma move. As the essay at Stardestroyer.net explained, plasma blobs like this would dissipate very quickly if not contained by an incredibly strong self-sustainng forcefield, and the blob would have all the aerodynamic properties of a party balloon. In short, the standard plasma blob gun is not feasible.

    However, the essay at Stardestroyer.net did not discuss the type of plasma weapon that fires streams or pulses of plasma at high velocities, only the kind that shoots slow blobs like the guns in Doom. The essay mentioned their is a way to rationally use plasma weapons in SF- the "plasma particle beam approach". How might a real plasma weapon work?

    To be continued...

    Christopher Phoenix

  5. This is how I think a real plasma weapon would work.

    The plasma rifle's ammo is a fuel cartridge and power cell integrated into a magazine. The fuel could either be slush hydrogen or self contained pellets.

    The fuel is ionized and injected into the firing chamber, where it is superheated, either by RF heating or lasers. The plasma is created and contained in highly focused magnetic bottles. The magnetic bottle is opened to allow the plasma to accelerate forward, converting the plasma's built-up thermal energy into kinetic energy. The electromagnetic-lined barrel focuses and accelerates the plasma even more, forming the bolt.

    This is where things get tricky. With today's technology, the plasma shot would quickly bloom and come to a stop due to collisions with air molecules, making a short hot flame.

    My plasma rifle could generate a laser beam tunnel, ionizing the atmosphere to ease the bolts passage to the target. The magnetic bottle could be extended to the target by electro-lasers. The speed of the bolt will allow it to reach a good distance before it blooms and dissipates.

    It might also be possible to encapsulate the bolt in a material of some type, such as a polymer, which might allow the bolt to reach a distance before it wore out and burst. In this case, spinnerets would stretch a polymer sheet in front of the plasma bolt, so it would be encapsulated by the polymer. The polymer would began degrading immediately, and when the bolt struck a target, the capsule would burst. This is basically a physical version of the magnetic capsule idea, but being polymer, it doesn't have to be magically self-sustained.

    If small portable fusion reactors are available, a direct tap on one would be a potential source of weapons-grade plasma. Especially the dense plasma focus, since the natural yield of such a reactor is a hot high-speed plasma beam. The PGMP, plasma gun man-portable, had a setup like this, as did the plasma pistol out of UFO: Alien Invasion.

    To be continued...

    Christopher Phoenix

  6. The key to creating a real plasma weapon is to allow the plasma's pent up thermal energy to convert to kinetic force, accelerating the plasma. My rifle uses a plasma-creating directed explosion to hurl a bolt of plasma at a target, using the particles own velocity to launch the bolt. The next key part is sustaining the bolt as a it passes through the air. The plasma bolt is a forceful stream or pulse, not a slow moving blob.

    My plasma rifle causes injuries through a combination of kinetic and thermal effects- imagine being hit by a bullet and a blow-torch at the same time. Nasty!! The heat and force of the impact would cause serious burns, literally burning a good portion of your flesh to a crisp. Internal fluids flash to steam, adipose (fatty) tissues melt, and flesh literally chars to ash.

    The plasma bolt might burn through most materials, penetrating due to its kinetic force and heat. If it hit something it couldn't punch through, the plasma would "splash" onto nearby objects. Most substances would be melted or vaporized. The explosion of superheated material and splashed plasma around an impact site could wound people standing nearby. Flammable materials would instantly combust when hit by the plasma shot.

    Heavy plasma guns as powerful as a PGMP would probably be hard to use. The gun would produce a lot of waste heat and have very high recoil. Recoil mitigation devices would be built into the gun, and the operator might have to wear a heat-resistant suit. I don't know how much recoil such a weapon would produce- that would depend on how fast and dense the plasma shot was.

    A smaller plasma firearm, like the EM-33 and pulse rifles from ST Enterprise or phased-plasma pulse rifles from Terminator would be far easier to use. These guns would consume much less fuel and coolant than their larger cousins, and have a lot less recoil. In fact, the blaster tech in some SF universes might be smaller versions of heavy plasma guns. In any case, most plasma firearms have a whole lot more stopping power than a modern day firearm!!

    My plasma gun designs are drawn from present day plasma and fusion rocket designs. The present day VASIMR rocket might be the basis for a real human engineered plasma weapon. As plasma guns become more powerful, fusion reactors may become the source for their plasma- imagine that kind of firepower!!

    Real life plasma weapons will end the perpetual arguments about the stopping power of different rounds. As I said before, nothing says "Get the #&$* out of my airlock!!" like a plasma rifle.

    "Eat hot plasma, filthy alien scum!!"

    Christopher Phoenix

  7. I've covered plasma firearms- but what other uses might future soldiers have for plasma? There are several other ways that plasma may wreak havoc on future battlefields (other than plasma guns).

    Electro-lasers use UV lasers to ionize the atmosphere, creating a LIPC- laser induced plasma channel. You can then fire electric shocks down the plasma channel, stunning or electrocuting your target. Weapons like this could give our soldiers and police officers shock-guns with stun and kill settings. You could use an electro-laser to guide powerful electrical arcs to a hapless target, sort of like a lighting bolt rifle. Lightning guns!!! Who would have thought that lighting bolt rifles are more realistic than plasma guns?

    Laser weapons like Pulsed Energy Projectile (PEP) and Plasma Acoustic Shield System (PASS) use lasers to create bursts of plasma. These plasma bursts can stun, disorient, or even kill a human. PASS creates a series of mid-air plasma bursts to stun an enemy or knock down an RPG. PEP could stun or kill an enemy by vaporizing bits of their clothing, creating an electromagnetic signal that causes pain and paralysis. Thrilling- remind me not to be on the wrong side of one of these devices.

    Another potential application of plasma in warfare is a force field. A device known as a plasma window has been created to keep a the ambient air out of a vacuum chamber without a physical seal. This aids in certain industrial processes such as electron beam welding. Right now, the plasma window is so hot it glows and consumes incredible amounts of power- far to much to be practical as a large force field device, but future tech may solve these problems.

    Researchers are currently working on ideas such as surrounding satellites with cold plasmas- relatively cool plasmas that could absorb radiation and electromagnetic energy. Since the plasmas are cool, not hot, it won't consume so much power- or melt the satellite!! Future applications of cold plasmas could be defense from EMP's or even ray-guns- lasers and particle beams. Hot plasmas could offer even more protection.

    Real life force fields could be made with multiple layers- perhaps a layer of cold plasma, than a hot plasma, than a carbon nanotube cage, than another layer of cold plasma. Multiple layers could provide defense from everything from ray-guns to missiles to biological attacks. Making a dense enough plasma to absorb a particle beam blast is beyond our current technology, but scientists agree that in the far future, it might be possible.

    Plasma shields are not exactly what SF fans think force-fields are, but they have many similarities to SF force fields. Plasma shields make pretty colors- use argon and the shield will glow blue. Plasma shields are hard for matter to pass through. Plasma barriers could keep air inside an airlock. Plasma shields could possibly absorb laser and particle beam blasts. Plasma shields could definitely protect space craft from radiation, solar flares, or even EMP's. A hot plasma forcefield might be lethal to anyone who touched it- imagine touching a glowing blue field and having your hand vaporized!!!

    Plasma windows may be used inside laser death rays that fire in the so called "vacuum frequencies" such as hard UV and x-rays- those frequencies can pass through plasma easily, while glass is opaque to them.

    As you can see, plasma will have many applications on the future battlefield even if plasma guns are fantasy forever.

    Power to the Plasma!!!

    Christopher Phoenix

  8. If both sides used sci-fi plasma weaponry, similar to Terminator, than the war would take on an air similar to WWI, where new weapon reap a heavy toll, it would reap a heavy toll on morale back home and on the minds and souls of the soldiers.
    I like the idea of plasma shielding..hmmm.
    I'm still digesting your posts...I must say, nice work!

  9. Thank you, William! You're right that wars fought with plasma weapons would be pretty scary. Incredibly destructive new weapons- like automatic weapons or plasma guns- tend to take the lives of many soldiers before each side changes their tactics and invents new protective armors for their soldiers.

    If you are being targeted by plasma weapons, you can try several defensive measures. Many materials exist today that are highly resistant to plasma, such as the reinforced carbon-carbon that was used in the space shuttle's nose cone, or the ceramic inserts in bulletproof vests. Armor made of these materials might resist the heat of the plasma long enough for the plasma do dissipate, providing the soldier with some protection. Electrostatic or reactive defenses could scatter the plasma envelope, lessoning the shots effect. If we ever use plasma weapons, someone will find defenses against them, just as we have defenses against bullets today. However, plasma weapons are so powerful, they might penetrate even the toughest armor and defenses in a few shots.

    Plasma shielding is really cool- here are some links to learn more about plasma shielding, and what it can and cannot do.
    and for more SF uses

    One inconsistency I've noticed is that some people seem to think plasma shields could block beam weapons, but the Wikipedia article says plasma barriers will hold back air while allowing radiation-lasers and particle beams- to pass. Maybe it is time to add another layer to our force shield to block ray-gun blasts- plasma might just let the beams through! Some ray-guns would even contain plasma barriers to allow the beams out while keeping air from getting in the guts of the ray-gun.

    I didn't mean to overload you with comments- but Plasma Weapons (and energy weapons in general) tend to capture the imagination, and I had a lot to say about plasma based weaponry. People tend to think only about the forms of matter they can eat, drink, or breath, but plasma is the most common state of matter- and one of the most fascinating, in my opinion. All stars are plasma, lightning bolts are plasma, the interstellar medium is plasma, fusion reactors contain plasma. In SF, plasma is found in futuristic fusion power plants, plasma weaponry shoots magnetically contained bolts as hot as stars, plasma rockets ride streams of hot star-stuff through space, etc. On the future battlefield, plasma acoustic shield systems will protect soldiers, electro-lasers create ionized trails to shock targets, and an anti-aircraft system has been designed that can destabilize a plane or missile with a laser-created plasmoid by changing the airflow around one side of the craft, causing it to spin out of control and crash. Always need to check out the ideas that DON'T involve burning holes in stuff.

    Christopher Phoenix

  10. Plasma guns seem to be impossible after reading the essay on plasma weapons at Star Wars vs Star Trek- but notice that they said that slowly moving self-contained plasma blobs were infeasible, not hyper-sonic streams or fast moving plasmoids. A sufficiently hypersonic bolt would have enough momentum to overcome the blooming problem...

    Plasma guns do exist in real life. They are known as Dense Plasma Focuses, and the Plasma Weapons article at Wikipedia mentions them as being a possible source of weapons-grade plasma. They have even been considered for use as a weapon, just look at Shiva Star- the real problem is blooming. Plasmoids that confined themselves without external fields exist as well- they are called Sphermaks. The spheromak contains large internal electrical currents and their associated magnetic fields arranged so the magnetohydrodynamic forces within the spheromak are nearly balanced, resulting in long-lived (microsecond) confinement times without any external fields. Spheromak belongs to a type of plasma configuration referred to as the compact toroids.

    The Star War vs Star Trek article classified any other plasma weapon than the "slow moving blob" as a particle-beam like weapon. You could over-come the blooming problem by shooting the plasma at relativistic velocities- which is more a particle beam shot than plasma shot. Perhaps the "plasma cannons" of Star Trek are really neutral particle beam weapons?

    My design intends on launching the plasma with its particles own velocities- instead of shooting a randomized blob, which would just burst and dissipate when it hit something even if it did work. My streams would punch forcefully through targets with a fusion hot stream- perhaps there are problems with this idea as well, but I think someday a plasma-based DEW might exist. These weapons will be distinct from other DEW's by using high-grade fusion fuel and hurling supra-heated bolts of plasma at targets- and higher power fusion guns may fire bolts that undergo nuclear fusion. I seem to have a flair for the fantastic- but they said heavier than air flight was impossible, too. They had equations that proved heavier than air flight was impossible. Was it?

    Here are some links I like:

    Christopher Phoenix

  11. My advice to SF writers is to avoid the traditional "plasma guns" that became so popular. The traditional concept of a gun that shoots a slow-moving self-contained blob just does not make sense on so many levels.

    First off, to rationalize the "plasma bullets" fired by PPG's and similar weapons, you need to wrap the plasma in a magically moving fantastically strong forcefield that does not need any device to sustain it. That raises the question of why personal forcefields as strong or even stronger aren't used to repel such bolt/blob. Worse still, once the bolt strikes a target and the containment field shatters, the barely-contained ions simply scatter in every direction. The bolt will not penetrate. You could solve these problems by shooting the plasma bolt at hypersonic speeds- but we don't see this in most shows. The subsonic speeds of plasma guns in most SF is in incomprehensible feature- why do you want the bolt to go so slow someone could dodge it?

    Why do writers use such weapons? I suspect it is because plasma guns sound cool, and they don't know better. Ironically, most SF writers nowadays don't know enough science to pass a high school physics course.

    What should you use instead of "plasma blob guns"? Pretty much anything else. Guns, missiles, bombs, lasers, particle beams, etc. all work very well. For lasers, check out the awesome web site "How to Build a Laser Death Ray". Particle beams make awesome weapons, especially the neutral particle beam types. You have the versatility of having many different particles to chose from- electrons are a good choice, but protons penetrate deeper. Neutral particle beams don't suffer from electrostatic blooming. For truly exotic beams, try unusual particles that decay inside the target- like pions or other strange particles.

    There is a rational way to use plasma weapons- that is the plasma particle beam approach. It might be possible to open up ionized tunnels in the air with lasers to ease a high velocity plasma bolts passage to a target- like they do in Terminator. High velocity plasma bolts could be used in space, but these are more like particle beams than "plasma weapons". If plasma firearms exist, the plasma bolt will probably be a high velocity stream.

    I prefer particle beam weapons anyway. PBW are pretty exotic. High power blasts of particles will penetrate deeply and shatter most targets, as well as causing plenty of secondary radiation damage. These weapons are quite deserving of the term "blaster"- they have a brutal impact. A weaker "ionic pistol" could shoot ions down a laser induced plasma channel- basically a light particle beam blaster.

    I imagine a "plasma weapon" would shoot ionized material at high speeds, so it have plenty of secondary kinetic impact as well as the thermal transfer. Probably the bolt would be a magnetically pinched plasma shooting along an ionized trail of air. The Stardestroyer.net article would interpret this as more of a particle beam.

    Do you think you could do a post on particle beam weapons? A lot of SF energy weapons are particle beam weapons of one kind or another. A lot of the blasters and energy bolt rifles of older SF were particle weapons, shooting ions or protons at a target. Robotech had a lot of particle guns, such as pistols or rifles- and I understand that you liked that series a lot. The Tau Cannon of Half Life is a PBW. PBW were considered for SDI. If you want a blaster, a PBW is probably the best choice. PBW fire their particles at high velocities toward a target, so they will penetrate deeply and super-heat it, exploding it.

    Christopher Phoenix

  12. Hello, William!! I just saw two new developments that will hasten the advent of portable directed energy weapons at Next Big Future. Someday we may have our very own handheld particle beam guns we can recharge from standard AC outlets or specialized charger units.

    Rice University is developing solid-state, nanotube based supercapacitors. These new supercapacitors are said to be stable and scalable, capable of surviving a wide range of environments, being integrated into the structure of devices, and have fast charge and discharge rates. Some applications may include car bodies that are also batteries, flexible displays, sensors, etc. For the purposes of ray-guns, any new development in lightweight high-energy capacity energy storage is interesting.

    The second development is even more exciting. Laser plasma accelerators offer the potential to create powerful electron beams within a fraction of the space required by conventional accelerators at a fraction of the cost. A laser pulse through a capillary filled with hydrogen plasma creates a wake that can accelerate an electron beam to a billion electron volts in just 3.3 centimeters. The same LOASIS accelerating structure has been modified to tune stable, high-quality beams from 100 to 400 million electron volts.

    The Atomic Rockets page on Energy Sidearms talked about both laser pistols and particle beam sidearms. Two accelerators were considered for particle beam sidearms: a pulsed linear inductive accelerator- which would have to operate at the theoretical limits of the technology to fit in pistol, and wake field accelerator. Dr. Schilling said the wake field accelerator tech was still in its infancy, but may well be adequate in the long run. Ordinary accelerators have to be rather long and hence unwieldy in a sidearm- imagine a pistol with an accelerator half a meter long. Another problem is that the voltage breakdown limit will limit available electron energy to under 5 Mev. Perhaps plasma wake accelerators will solve that problem...

    Of course, these technologies have many other peaceful applications, but someday advanced power sources and powerful accelerators may allow us to create handheld particle guns.

    Christopher Phoenix

  13. Excellent post and website, very informative.

    Question: what would be the theoretical effects of a plasma based DEW weapon if it was discharged in a vacuum environment? O_o

    There would be no atmosphere to gobble up the energy so wouldn't the blast be more contained?

  14. Interesting question! Thanks for the reading and commenting! Well, astrophysical plasma is everywhere in outer space, and it would make sense that Plasma DEW systems would behavior better in their natural environment: "I've got 99 problems, but the atmosphere ain't one". But plasma can and wants to expand. So, we would still need the plasma energy to be still contained in some sort of EM/Force Field sabot, or else you would get a pretty stream of plasma moved towards your enemy at a slow rate of speed. To be an effective DEW system against warships, you would need greater power requirements. Greater the plasma, the greater the sabot, and greater the engineering problem. When the plasma bolt is fired at the enemy warship, you could overcome some of these containment issues with faster velocity,the Air Force looked at this with their 'Shiva Star' project that would have attempted to fire plasma projectile at 10,000 km/s, but could never make it would to be effective. However, an Plasma DEW would never match the instant velocity of a laser beam or the power of the a railgun slug. Plasma could be used as a defensive weapon, and some writers have used plasma walls as a type of Trek-like energy shields.

  15. The difference, as I see it, between a "particle beam weapon" and a "plasma beam weapon" as discussed here is that, in typical usage, the former refers to a weapon that accelerates a microscopic quantities of (sub)atomic particles to near-lightspeed, while the latter involves accelerating a relatively much larger quantity of matter to much lower speeds (probably somewhere between 1 km/s and 10,000 km/s). As noted on the Atomic Rocket website, particle beams have serious secondary radiation issues, especially in atmosphere, which make them unsuitable for use by/around friendly flesh-and-blood personnel. "Merely" hypersonic plasma blasts do not have this problem.

  16. An interesting, if not overall depressing, blog entry on the idea of plasma weaponry in science fiction. Like Space Fighters and Mecha, one does not take the idea of physics shooting down the idea of plamsa-based weaponry well. However, in my own perticular case, after going to Christopher Shields's Terminator Website, a little worm burrowed into my mind that blossomed into a brain fart that Christopher Pheonix also noted in his own replies: Have the Bolt of Plasma travel faster than what is seen in most sci-fi that feature them if only to have them outrun their own blooming effect.

    It's not exactly an unfounded idea, since humanity as a whole have innovated ways to make their projectiles go faster to close the gap quicker and/or cross a greater distance. If a Ninja can't catch an arrow ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fx6Q1ZGz3GQ ), then why would anyone want to create a subsonic bolt of Plamsa DEW that anyone could dodge if they saw it comming? Speaking of which, if a normal human can't dodge an object traveling at 130 mph ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ni3WtNcuZ4Q ), then that must mean that the stormtroopers really ARE bad shots. Or its plot armor again.....

    But basically, the plasma bolts should be accelerated to Hypersonic velocites at the very least, though I have a feeling that plasma bolts firing at relavistic velocities is something that is seen only on combat spacecraft due to the difference in energy densities between a soldier's firearm, armored vehicle, and captial ship. Though I have a feeling that if and when a plasma bolt is fired from a small arm, it would be confoused with a beam due to the sheer speed these things are going. Well, assuming that you don't go blind while watching it.

    As for the issue of self-sustained plasma bolts, well there's this little article suggesting that it's possible: http://engineering.missouri.edu/2013/06/plasma-ring-sets-the-stage-for-further-research/ and given enough time it could be of an appreciable distance though I think it's prudent to just stick with the whole "extended electromagnetic barrel" to make up the short distance if only to cover one's bases.

    Oh! And before I forget, and this is under the assumption that the plasma bolts are traveling at +Hypersonic velocities, even if the plasma bolt could be successfully blocked by the same EM fields that project it and send it down range, I have a feeling that the kinetic energy alone would be enough to cause damage to at least the EM equipment and the moorings that are attached to it. Let alone the thermal splash that would probably damage anything that has a very, VERY low thermal tolerence. It may block the initial impact, but it just might not have that second chance to retaliate if it's suffering from the kinetic impact that would most likely damage the internal workings of said shield, especially if said plama bolt was from a rapid firing weapon.

    Still, nice discussion on the subject. Gives one some food for thought.