4 Plasma Technologies That Put Video Game Weapons to Shame

In school you might have been taught that there are three states of matter, in the same way you might have been taught not to have sex before marriage -- an outdated lesson that skips all the fun hot stuff. Plasma is literally super-charged matter. When it congeals into cold and boring things (like us), most of the electrons and protons pair off into stable, neutral relationships, but in plasma, many of those charges run free in a thermodynamic orgy of electrical and magnetic fields.

Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Getty Images
Unless you're a Terminator, your "plasma" is far wimpier.

It's what Fallout uses when it wants to turn enemies into exploding puddles. A video game developer's entire job is imagining awesome new technologies to explode, and even they can't beat plasma.

How a real science/anti-science debate would go.

Plasma technology is steampunk for the real world, using a far more impressive change of state and just as many awesomely shiny pipes and rivets, and we're using it to drive the world into an amazing future.

#4. Wendelstein 7-X

Plasma makes up most of the visible universe and causes all the light making anything visible at all. Natural light, burning coal, electricity from wind and tide -- they all come from the plasma fusion reactor that powers our entire planet, aka the sun. Even fission comes from splitting bits of its family's corpses.

Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images
But when you say "plasma," people still think of TVs.

Almost all of our power plants eat the ecosystem's leftovers -- the black shit of old dead plants, or waves and wind farting out some thermal differential. But instead of scraping up a few crumbs of sun, we can copy the source with fusion power. One of many systems working on this apotheosis of energy is the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator.

The name alone is smarter than three Ph.D.s.

Stellarators do exactly what the name says, and what that name says is that we are gods. Specifically Apollo. The Latin suffix "tor" forms an agent noun, an item that performs the action of the base word. A motor performs the action of moving you, an accelerator performs the action of accelerating you, and a stellarator performs the action of being a star.

Star (noun): a word we desperately need to confiscate from idiots.

The sun's fusion is gravitationally driven. We don't have enough mass to make another on Earth -- for one thing, we'd need another 300,000 Earths -- but here's the thing: Gravity is the weakest force in the universe. Electromagnetism is a thousand million billion quintillion times stronger, and we're so in charge of it that we make it sit in our pockets and sing for us.

Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images
Quantum electrodynamics is vital when you want to get lucky.

We can win by being smart instead of big, which means we're going to power the future of humanity with the ultimate nerd fantasy.

One problem is that plasma is the MC Hammer of matter: You can't touch it (because it'll vaporize and ionize you, or be cooled to destruction). But because it's charged, you can contain it in a magnetic field. The easiest shape for that is a cylinder. To prevent plasma from leaking out of the edges, you twist the cylinder into a doughnut (or toroid), but then gas at the inner edge feels stronger magnetic forces than gas on the outer edge. Tokamaks (like the awesome JET) compensate by driving a current through the plasma. The twisting Wendelstein, which is even more powerful than the wrestling move it sounds like, instead compensates by twisting the doughnut to alternate plasma back and forth between the inner and outer edges.

The result looks like someone started building a Mobius strip and couldn't stop until they'd included everything humanity had ever learned about science. Which is almost exactly the case.

An array of master-crafted metal mobii.

The result is a masterpiece of modern science, embodying our most advanced theories in our most impressive technologies, every curve calculated and crafted, every addition the result of lifetimes of work. It's an installation in every sense of the word: a large machine put together by humans, a location designed to perform a task, and an artwork intended to change life for everyone exposed to its effects. The Wendelstein 7-X is firing up this year as one of many systems researching thermonuclear fusion, the process that will make our grandchildren ask, "Wait, you assholes dug up all our petrochemicals and just burned them?"

Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images
"OK, Granddad, into the Soylent smoothie maker."

#3. Ion Engines

Space launch engines are the most impressive explosions ever built. They're motorbikes built for ramping off the entire planet without a ramp, they sound like we decided to give thunder some of its own medicine, and they look like plasma towers punching into the sky to see if lightning wants some as well.

USSR Government
Because that's what they are.

(Lightning did want some. Twice. It lost.)

But once you're in space, they start to have problems. Longer trips require more fuel, and lifting that fuel requires even more fuel, an exponential increase in mass that means that after a certain launch mass, it would be easier to just turn Australia into a supervolcano to push the entire planet whichever way you want to go.

Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images
And make Australia slightly less lethal.

The solution is to be smarter. The solution is always to be smarter; that's how we built the modern world. Space engines work by conservation of momentum: throw some stuff out backward and you'll end up going forward. Chemical engines achieve that with violent explosions, with the slight side effect of being built to cause violent explosions. Ion engines create plasma from inert gas, then electrically accelerate ions out the back of the motor. They're the perfect science-fiction solution. Wait, did I say fiction? I meant "They've been operating for over half a century." NASA demonstrated the Space Electric Rocket Test in 1964, and the Soviet Union started using Hall effect thrusters in the '70s.

"A Star War? Don't bother me with things that won't happen for over a decade, I'm building a real ion engine here."

Ion engines only exert a tiny thrust, making them useless for launch, but once you're in space, you don't have to fight air resistance or surface gravity. You can just keep accelerating into endless space. NASA tested their first interplanetary ion engine in 1998 on Deep Space 1, which averaged over 3 million kilometers per kilogram of fuel and reached a maximum speed of over 16,000 kph. With more fuel, the engine could have hit a top speed of 108,000 kph. Oh, and it was solar powered the whole way, running on 2100 watts, less than your workplace probably uses on lighting.

"It's 200 million kilometers to asteroid 9969 Braille, we've got a full tank of xenon, 92 millinewtons of thrust,
it's dark, and we work for NASA. Hit it."

So of course we're building something bigger. A hundred times bigger. Big enough to lift the International Space Station bigger. The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) is thermonuclear fusion research applied to space propulsion. It upgrades the ion engine concept with superconducting magnets, because some people are getting on with the future. It's scheduled for testing on the ISS, by lifting the entire ISS, next year.

NASA, Ad Astra
And looks like it should be in the Ghostbusters' basement.

Ion engines are light and electrical (so they can be solar or nuclear powered) and use utterly inert gases as fuel. If they were any more perfect for space travel, they'd leave without us.

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