A particle-beam weapon uses a high-energy beam of atomic or subatomic particles to damage the target by disrupting its atomic and/or molecular structure. A particle-beam weapon is a type of directed-energy weapon, which directs energy in a particular and focused direction using particles with negligible mass. Some particle-beam weapons are real and have potential practical applications, e.g., as an anti-ballistic missile defense system for the United States and its Strategic Defense Initiative. The vast majority, however, are science fiction and are among the most common weapon types of the genre. They have been known by a myriad of fantastic-sounding names: phasers, particle accelerator guns, ion cannons, proton beams, lightning rays, ray guns etc.
The concept of particle-beam weapons comes from sound scientific principles and experiments currently underway around the world. One effective process to cause damage to or destroy a target is to simply overheat it until it is no longer operational.
Particle accelerators are a well-developed technology used in scientific research for decades. They use electromagnetic fields to accelerate and direct charged particles along a predetermined path, and electrostatic “lenses” to focus these streams for collisions. The Cathode Ray Tube in many televisions and computer monitors is a very simple type of particle accelerator. More powerful versions include tokamaks and cyclotrons used in nuclear research. A particle-beam weapon is a weaponized version of this technology. It accelerates charged particles (in most cases electrons, positrons, protons, or ionized atoms, but very advanced versions can use more exotic particles) to near-light speed and then shoots them at a target. These particles have tremendous kinetic energy which they impart to matter in the target’s surface, inducing near-instantaneous and catastrophic superheating.
Charged particle beams diverge rapidly due to mutual repulsion, so neutral particle beams are more commonly proposed. A neutral-particle-beam weapon ionizes hydrogen gas by either stripping an electron off of each hydrogen atom, or by allowing each hydrogen atom to capture an extra electron. When hydrogen molecules gain electrons, they form anions; when hydrogen molecules lose electrons, they form cations; when hydrogen atoms lose their last electron they form protons. A particle-beam weapon that accelerates anions uses a traveling wave type particle accelerator. In this kind of ion accelerator, the negative ions are released inside a cylindrical ion acceleration chamber. This chamber has an electrode with an alternating electric charge of up to 1,000,000,000 () volts inside it.
- While the charge on the electrode is positive, the ions are attracted to the negative charge on the electrode, and thus bunched around it.
- The alternating voltage switches the charge to negative on the accelerating electrode.
- The negative charge electrostatically repels the negative ions and accelerates them to near the velocity of light.
- The resulting high energy beam of anions passes through a chamber filled with low pressure gas.
- There, collisions with the gas strip the extra electrons from the anions, and thus make the particle beam neutral.
- The particle beam proceeds straight to its target, and damages it by running into it, and by disrupting the structure of the target with its kinetic energy.
Cyclotron particle accelerators, linear particle accelerators, and synchroton particle acclerators can accelerate positively charged hydrogen ions until their velocity approaches the speed of light, and each individual ion has a kinetic energy range of 100 MeV to 1000 MeV or more. Then the resulting high energy protons can capture electrons from electron emitter electrodes, and be thus electrically neutralized. This creates an electrically neutral beam of high energy hydrogen atoms, that can proceed in a straight line at near the speed of light to smash into its target and damage it.
The pulsed particle beam emitted by such a weapon may contain 1 gigajoule of kinetic energy or more. The speed of a beam approaching that of light (300,000 km/s) in combination with the energy created by the weapon would negate any realistic means of defending a target against the beam. Target hardening through shielding or materials selection would be impractical or ineffective, especially if the beam could be maintained at full power and precisely focused on the target.
Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American electrical engineer and inventor known for his work in alternating current and high-frequency-electricity technology, also claimed that he had developed an electricity-based "ray" weapon. The press called it a "peace ray" or death ray.
- An apparatus for producing manifestations of energy in free air instead of in a high vacuum as in the past. This, according to Tesla in 1934, was accomplished.
- A mechanism for generating tremendous electrical force. This, according to Tesla, was also accomplished.
- A means of intensifying and amplifying the force developed by the second mechanism.
- A new method for producing a tremendous electrical repelling force. This would be the projector, or gun, of the invention.
In 1937, Tesla composed a treatise entitled "The Art of Projecting Concentrated Non-dispersive Energy through the Natural Media". This treatise is currently in the Nikola Tesla Museum archive in Belgrade. It described a weapon Tesla called a "teleforce" consisting of an open-ended vacuum tube with a gas jet seal that allowed particles to exit, a method of charging particles to millions of volts, and a method of creating and directing non-dispersive particle streams (through electrostatic repulsion).
Tesla worked on plans for a directed-energy weapon between the early 1900s until the time of his death. Records of his device indicate that it was based on a narrow stream of atomic clusters of liquid mercury or tungsten accelerated via high voltage (by means akin to his magnifying transformer). Tesla gave the following description concerning the particle gun's operation:
|“||[The nozzle would] send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles from a defending nation's border and will cause armies to drop dead in their tracks.||”|
The weapon could be used against ground based infantry or for anti-aircraft purposes. Tesla tried to interest the US War Department in the device. He also offered this invention to European countries. None of the governments purchased a contract to build the device.
Various theories persist regarding the nature of this device and the whereabouts of Tesla's complete schematics for it. Immediately after his death, his personal effects were stolen and the room's safe opened. The FBI claims that it never found the schematics nor any prototype.
The U.S. Defense Strategic Defense Initiative Organization put into development the technology of a neutral particle beam for strategic defense applications. In mid-1989, it was to be part of the Beam Experiments Aboard a Rocket (BEAR) in New Mexico.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Dec. 15, 2008, Sandia National Laboratories broke ground on the $40 million Ion Beam Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base. It will house six accelerators and is scheduled for occupancy in 2010.
- Roberds, Richard M (July–August 1984), "Introducing the Particle-Beam Weapon", Air University Review (USA: Air Force).
- Neutral Particle Beam (NPB), Federation of American Scientists, 2005.
- "Tesla's Ray", Time, July 23, 1934.
- "Tesla, at 78, Bares New 'Death-Beam", New York Times, July 11, 1934.
- "Tesla Invents Peace Ray", New York Sun, July 10, 1934.
- "Death-Ray Machine Described", New York Sun, July 11, 1934.
- A Machine to End War, Feb 1935.
- Seifer, Marc J, Wizard, the Life and Times of Nikola Tesla (HCISBN 1-55972-329-7), p. 454, .
- Beam to Kill Army at 200 Miles, Tesla's Claim on 78th Birthday, July 11, 1934.
- "Death Ray' for Planes", New York Times, September 22, 1940.
- Aerial Defense 'Death-Beam' Offered to US by Tesla, July 12, 1940.
- O'Neill, John J, "34 — Tesla Tries To Prevent World War II", Prodigal Genius (unpublished ed.), PBS.
- Nunz, GJ (2001), BEAR (Beam Experiments Aboard a Rocket) Project, 1: Project Summary, USA: Storming Media.
- Ground to be broken for new Ion Beam Laboratory (release), USA: Sandia, 2008.