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that there are three states of matter, in the same way you might have been taught not to have sex before marriage -- an outdated lesson that skips all the fun hot stuff.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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
"OK, Granddad, into the Soylent smoothie maker."
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Z Machine sounds like an evil invention by a sleepy Batman villain and looks like something Michael Bay would cut from a movie for being too awesome to exist with current special effects. Which is why physicists built it with real current effects.
More lightning than Zeus attacking Thor for rubbing him with cats.
The PBFA-Z (Particle Beam Fusion Accelerator, Z-pinch version ... you don't need an acronym when all the words are this awesome) is the largest X-ray generator in the world. In fact it's the most powerful and efficient radiation source it's possible to turn on instead of firing at enemy nations.
Anyone can create high temperatures by adding more current -- people with Christmas lights and desperately misplaced senses of personal achievement learn that every year -- but the Z Machine is designed to do it more than once, which is a far harder challenge.
"Well yes, we could call them 'plasma physicists,' but we're going with 'dickheads we wish Smokey the Bear could eat.'"
It discharges a ring of immense capacitors into parallel tungsten wires. The matter-shattering currents instantly turn the tungsten to plasma and create intense magnetic forces between them, zeta-pinching all the plasma wires into one appallingly hot filament. This subjects the targets to over 25 million amps -- that's more current than 700 simultaneous lightning strikes -- and pressures over 10 million atmospheres. It can reach temperatures of over 2 billion Kelvin. It can melt diamond. Because when you adventure beyond the miniscule damp speck of reality that supports human bodies, you can turn our hardest materials into Dali paintings.
One of the warp cores they clearly stole from the starship Enterprise.
It's so far beyond anything we normally understand about electricity, it uses water lines to transmit power, and "covered in lightning bolts" means it's functioning properly. It's pure plasmapunk, vast energies barely but definitely channeled by our shiny brilliance. It's also working on fusion power, but being honest, if it did nothing but exist that awesomely, it would already have elevated our species.
Quark Gluon Plasma
Quark gluon plasma sounds like a drink on Deep Space 9 and is even more out of this world.
"I spent more of my life in makeup than most makeup artists. You're damn right I'm sure I want another drink."
Regular plasma is when you merely strip the electrons from an atomic nucleus. Quark gluon plasma is when you shatter that nucleus and then melt the pieces. This only happens at high densities and high energies. Historically, that meant using all the matter and all the energy, ever, because QCP is a phase the entire universe went through in the first microseconds after the Big Bang.
The Caped Cosmological Theory posits that Batman punched the universe into existence, because he really did prepare for everything.
And we're making it. One of the groups involved is the PHENIX Collaboration, and there is no way they're not G.I. Joe villains.
They already have the subterranean base full of hypertech and staff determined to change the world.
The Pioneering High Energy Nuclear Interactions Experiment is even Bondier in operation than acronymy, using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider to accelerate gold ions into subnuclear fireballs. Sure, they only need a few grams of gold to run for all time, but at this point it seems a shame to not rob Fort Knox anyway.
Screw the Grand Unified Theory -- a couple hours with a hammer and we could make a real Triforce!
Another group squeezing out droplets of big bang juice is ALICE, A Large Ion Collider Experiment, making even heavier hadron-wreckage out of lead.
Looking like something in the Ghostbusters' cartoon basement.
Understand: Our quark gluon plasma makes stars look like candles. The PHENIX plasma reached a world record of 4 trillion degrees; ALICE burned past it to 5.5 trillion. At this level, it really doesn't matter if you're using Celsius or Kelvin. In either case, the units look like trying to measure the sun with a toothpick: insanely insufficient for a subject that destroys the very concepts you're using to quantify it. Except the QCP is 300,000 times hotter than the sun's thermonuclear core. We're generating it to better understand the basic nature of matter, including (but certainly not limited to) little things like the origin of the universe.
So if you're wondering why most scientists don't get involved in creation debates, it's because they're getting on with creation science, skipping the stupid shouting matches to generate bits of the beginning of existence itself.
Luke enjoys faith as well as science with The Original Creator's Creation Myth, and looks at an even more important story with Three Ways Die Hard Is Perfect for Valentine's Day. He also tumbles and responds to every single tweet.
Behold more space glory in 5 Astronauts More Badass Than Any Action Movie Hero and The 5 Coolest Things We've Ever Sent into Orbit.