Making a light saber

A couple of years ago I explained how to make a free-floating combat drone: , like the ones in Halo or Mass Effect. They could realistically be made in the next couple of decades and are very likely to feature heavily in far future warfare, or indeed terrorism. I was chatting to a journalist this morning about light sabers, another sci-fi classic. They could also be made in the next few decades, using derivatives of the same principles. A prototype is feasible this side of 2050.

I’ll ignore the sci-fi wikis that explain how they are meant to work, which mostly approximate to fancy words for using magic or The Force and various fictional crystals. On the other hand, we still want something that will look and sound and behave like the light saber.

The handle bit is pretty obvious. It has to look good and contain a power source and either a powerful laser or plasma generator. The traditional problem with using a laser-based saber is that the saber is only meant to be a metre long but laser beams don’t generally stop until they hit something. Plasma on the other hand is difficult to contain and needs a lot of energy even when it isn’t being used to strike your opponent. A laser can be switched on and off and is therefore better. But we can have some nice glowy plasma too, just for fun.

The idea is pretty simple then. The blade would be made of graphene flakes coated with carbon nanotube electron pipes, suspended using the same technique I outlined in the blog above. These could easily be made to form a long cylinder and when you want the traditional Star Wars look, they would move about a bit, giving the nice shimmery blurry edge we all like so that the tube looks just right with blurry glowy edges. Anyway, with the electron pipe surface facing inwards, these flakes would generate the internal plasma and its nice glow. They would self-organize their cylinder continuously to follow the path of the saber. Easy-peasy. If they strike something, they would just re-organize themselves into the cylinder again once they are free.

For later models, a Katana shaped blade will obviously be preferred. As we know, all ultimate weapons end up looking like a Katana, so we might as well go straight to it, and have the traditional cylindrical light saber blade as an optional cosmetic envelope for show fights. The Katana is a universal physics result in all possible universes.

The hum could be generated by a speaker in the handle if you have absolutely no sense of style, but for everyone else, you could simply activate pulsed magnetic fields between the flakes so that they resonate at the required band to give your particular tone. Graphene flakes can be magnetized so again this is perfectly consistent with physics. You could download and customize hums from the cloud.

Now the fun bit. When the blade gets close to an object, such as your opponent’s arm, or your loaf of bread in need of being sliced, the capacitance of the outer flakes would change, and anyway, they could easily transmit infrared light in every direction and pick up reflections. It doesn’t really matter which method you pick to detect the right moment to activate the laser, the point is that this bit would be easy engineering and with lots of techniques to pick from, there could be a range of light sabers on offer. Importantly, at least a few techniques could work that don’t violate any physics. Next, some of those self-organizing graphene flakes would have reflective surface backings (metals bond well with graphene so this is also a doddle allowed by physics), and would therefore form a nice reflecting surface to deflect the laser beam at the object about to be struck. If a few flakes are vaporized, others would be right behind them to reflect the beam.

So just as the blade strikes the surface of the target, the powerful laser switches on and the beam is bounced off the reflecting flakes onto the target, vaporizing it and cauterizing the ends of the severed blood vessels to avoid unnecessary mess that might cause a risk of slipping. The shape of the beam depends on the locations and angles of the reflecting surface flakes, and they could be in pretty much any shape to create any shape of beam needed, which could be anything from a sharp knife to a single point, severing an arm or drilling a nice neat hole through the heart. Obviously, style dictates that the point of the saber is used for a narrow beam and the edge is used as a knife, also useful for cutting bread or making toast (the latter uses transverse laser deflection at lower aggregate power density to char rather than vaporize the bread particles, and toast is an option selectable by a dial on the handle).

What about fights? When two of these blades hit each other there would be a variety of possible effects. Again, it would come down to personal style. There is no need to have any feel at all, the beams could simple go through each other, but where’s the fun in that? Far better that the flakes also carry high electric currents so they could create a nice flurry of sparks and the magnetic interactions between the sabers could also be very powerful. Again, self organisation would allow circuits to form to carry the currents at the right locations to deflect or disrupt the opponent’s saber. A galactic treaty would be needed to ensure that everyone fights by the rules and doesn’t cheat by having an ethereal saber that just goes right through the other one without any nice show. War without glory is nothing, and there can be no glory without a strong emotional investment and physical struggle mediated by magnetic interactions in the sabers.

This saber would have a very nice glow in any color you like, but not have a solid blade, so would look and feel very like the Star Wars saber (when you just want to touch it, the lasers would not activate to slice your fingers off, provided you have read the safety instructions and have the safety lock engaged). The blade could also grow elegantly from the hilt when it is activated, over a second or so, it would not just suddenly appear at full length. We need an on/off button for that bit, but that could simply be emotion or thought recognition so it turns on when you concentrate on The Force, or just feel it.

The power supply could be a battery or graphene capacitor bank of a couple of containers of nice chemicals if you want to build it before we can harness The Force and magic crystals.

A light saber that looks, feels and behaves just like the ones on Star Wars is therefore entirely feasible, consistent with physics, and could be built before 2050. It might use different techniques than I have described, but if no better techniques are invented, we could still do it the way I describe above. One way or another, we will have light sabers.

Stormrouter – making WMDs from hurricanes or thunderstorms

I just had another idea for a new weapon of mass destruction for a future sci-fi novel, or for real life if we need it. This could work in real life, it’s just a little limited if it only works in storms.

I wrote a long time ago about harvesting energy from hurricanes using my collector. Carbon Girl and her other half Carbon Man use the idea in Space Anchor.

The original idea is summarised here:

Well, every superhero has enemies, and they have to be suitably matched or it is no contest, so let’s pretend in this case that our super-villain is called Stormrouter. No connection to Storm from the Fantastic Four though.

You can extract a few gigawatts from a hurricane with an extractor for quite a while, and I suppose you could use that energy to kill people, but that’s no good is it? The enemy probably won’t allow you to use an extractor on their turf. So that idea is only a peacetime thing really. However, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Very often in a storm, there is lightning. Charge builds up due to the movement of the air, and when it reaches a critical point, a big spark happens, either between clouds or from the ground. Suppose we can make little particles that charge up by being thrown around in the wind, and suppose we can link them into chains at will, so that they can discharge via some unfortunate enemy. OK, so we can only use it when it is stormy, and yes the enemy could stay indoors then. But storms can last ages. Putting an enemy indoors for several hours, or even a few days, while you have your own people wandering around safely doing as they want would be quite an advantage. If they come outside, you zap them. Your own people don’t get zapped, just enemy people.

I damn near killed myself in a dare in my school physics lab once, or at least it felt like it. We were messing with a Wimshurst machine, great fun when the Physics teacher is late. A fraction of a turn charged up the rods to give you a hefty zap. At full charge they can throw a spark 2.5 inches (6cm). So my mates dared me to do several turns and then try. So I did. I wound it and wound it, and then put my finger towards the rod. I got nowhere near it before a hugely powerful spark hit me. I was a jibbering wreck for an hour afterwards. I guess if a kid did that today, they’d probably sue the school, but I had the old-fashioned view that if I was behaving like an idiot, then it was my fault. If you want to do that to yourself, you can buy them easily on ebay, but it hurts. The point is that the contra-rotating plates can build up thousands of volts and store the energy in the leyden jars until the voltage is high enough to make the spark, or in my case, to zap the schoolboy.

In a cloud, rising water droplets allegedly collide with falling ice particles and lead to charge separation. In our weapon system, we will use billions of tiny particles instead of nature’s water droplets and ice crystals. Our little particles have sails, and they can tack in different directions within the storm. They know which direction they are going because we have a local positioning system for them. As they pass, they collide with others coming the opposite way, and each builds up a positive or negative charge. Obviously we can make coatings on their sides to optimise that. The wind within the storm provides the energy. The particles hold the charge on their capacitor plates. When they have built up lots of charge, it can be released in any particular direction on demand along with charge from their colleagues, all aligned in a line to the enemy. They don’t have to touch, just get close enough for the sparks to work, and a huge spark from all the charge from lots of particles can be released into any particular enemy combatant, or piece of sensitive electrical equipment if you prefer. So we need some low altitude particles or drones with imaging equipment to identify combatants, and some sort of ID system to make sure they don’t attack our guys. There are rather a lot of particles so we can arrange to attack lots of them at once, limited only by the energy available in our storm.

This energy harvesting could also be used to power or combat drones too, which can carry other equipment such as lasers, tasers, plasma rifles or whatever. I describe my free-floating combat drone army in:

It would be hard to disable the small particles, so they would make for quite a resilient weapon, albeit one that can only be used in a storm. Together with combat drones that can self repair and are virtually indestructible, this would make a pretty powerful weapon system. Perfect for a super-villain in a sci-fi story, but feasible enough to be used in real life in a few decades from now.




The all-carbon Katana

This idea is just sci-fi, for now, and relates to my sci-fi book.

Even with all the available fancy guns available to them, modern sci-fi heroes often use swords. Gi Joe, Blade, The Matrix, Riddick, Star Wars are just a few that spring immediately to mind.

Often they use Katanas or Ninja swords because they look good.

In my last post I mentioned cubic carbon. I originally introduced the concept in my main blog at:

Cubic carbon would be very hard, it can be made at all. It could hold an incredibly sharp edge. The blade of a Katana is usually made of folded carbon steel, but  with carbon fibre and graphene string to make and wrap the handle and guards, composites of carbon nanotubes, graphene and cubic carbon for the blade, and a cubic carbon edge, with maybe a few diamonds and graphite patterning to decorate Carbon Girl’s Katana, a pure carbon Katana could be made for both her and Carbon Man. No other materials are needed at all. 

Perfect. But if they aren’t allowed to take them with them for some reason, they can quickly fabricate temporary but lethal substitute using nothing more than carbon tape.

Disk and dart weapons

I have a toy gun that fires spinning foam disks. It is pretty harmless of course. But it gave me an idea for the armory. Swords are fine for close up engagements, but a gun is hard to beat at a distance.

A graphene disk would be ideal for high-speed projection. The material of the disk would support high electric currents and therefore magnetic field interaction with the gun. Without bothering with too much detail, a future professional version of a disk gun could be made that fires ultra-thin (sharp) but highly strong graphene disks, spinning at high speed, and having minimal air resistance.

So the disks would shoot quite far, and self stabilising so fairly accurate, and very sharp, so would do damage. A high-speed cluster of them could be used to good effect to significantly damage or impede an enemy.

Electromagnetic forces could also be used to fire graphene darts. No new concepts are needed, the rail gun already exists and that mechanism would be perfect at any scale. Darts would scale too. Small darts with just a few layers of graphene would be very lightweight so convey limited mechanical damage, even if travelling fast, so they may be best suited for puncturing and short circuiting electrical equipment. Thicker and heavier ones would be much more lethal, adding mass and strength using any carbon material in the center, and being very streamlined and sharp if they taper the number of layers at the edges.

Cubic carbon is a fanciful material that may not even be possible to fabricate, using all 6 electrons to form bonds with neighbors in a cubic structure. It should be extremely hard, and such a material would be useful to make or add tips or edges to projectiles that could pierce or damage anything.

Carbon tape weapons

There is no shortage of traditional weapons, such as bows and arrows, swords, spears and an endless variety of guns, lasers etc. When none of these are permitted, you could fabricate and entire armory with nothing more than a roll of graphene tape.

Once graphene is easily producible, it will be possible to buy graphene tape. When I was a child, my friends and I used to make swords by rolling up tape measures and pushing the center through and drawing it out as far as possible to a point. If you roll up graphene tape and draw the center out, the point could be pretty sharp. Being graphene, it could also make a pretty strong rapier.

Also by winding some layers around a triangular cross section cardboard tube (or carbon fiber, or even a piece of scrap paper), a pretty rigid tube would result. Bending and tying the ends with strong graphene string or tape would result in a bow or sword.

Graphene weapons

Graphene weapons

The stringed bow would only need very fine string thanks to the huge strength of graphene. This would make a good bow but also make a cutting weapon in it own right. If a layer of tape instead of string were used, the same strength would be available with an even sharper edge.

Carbon foam balloon as military platform

In my sci-fi book, the Carballoon is a huge carbon balloon made mainly from graphene foam. (In a nutshell, graphene foam is made up of tiny graphene spheres with a vacuum inside to give an average density lower than helium.)

It has many civilian uses as described there, but is also useful militarily. 

Some of the smaller balloons that it can send out would have reconnaissance or espionage functions. Some would have weapon systems on board, and having variable buoyancy, could sneak into an area at high altitude unnoticed before descending and bringing death from above. They could occupy some of the roles occupied by today’s drones, so would likely be covered by similar legislation.

Subject to that legislation, weaponry could include guns, directed energy or particle beam weapons, and graphene dart swarms, as well as missiles and bombs. These weapons would potentially scale with balloon size so that the mothership Car-Balloon would be very powerful.

The main advantage balloons convey is range and duration. They could stay afloat permanently without consuming power. They could sit stealthily for long periods on standby before being woken up to come into action. In fact, all the time they are afloat, the solar cells on the upper sections could accumulate energy and store it in graphene super-capacitors, to be released as required.

Graphene foam would be a very low density solid, so it would not fall if punctured. The pieces would stay afloat even if it were broken up. Self-organisation and assembly functionality could be distributed throughout the foam to allow pieces to come back together, and thus enable continuous self-repair.

Carbon Girl’s stilettoes

Our athletic, stylish and elegant, but nevertheless highly formidable Carbon Girl wears some pretty mean shoes. The heels make very potent weapons. The heel has to work on normal ground, so it uses a concertina design using carbon muscles to allow a broad base to be extended for softer ground, making sure she doesn’t sink into soft grass at weddings. However, with a single thought and emotion recognition based command, the broad heel is drawn upwards, revealing a solid cubic-carbon stiletto coming to a single carbon atom point, with an edge extending all the way up the reverse of the heel, far sharper than possible with any other material. Able to cut through anything, the tip can even penetrate the diamond helmet worn by her nemesis.

The bulk of the shoe is made of carbon fibre. Intricate but electronically changeable patterns in the upper layers enable a wide variety of appearances to be achieved, able to be switched into a computer display at will. The heel height is entirely variable, as is the profile. Carbon Girl only needs one pair, but she still has lots.