4 Ways Plasma Technology Will Change The World
We're made of star-stuff, and we made science to relight it. Great gleaming genius machines, built of bolts both metal and lightning to drive a phase change into the future. Plasma technology is to tomorrow as steampunk is to yesterday, in that both are fun, but the future one is better, more powerful, and much, much more useful. Plasmapunks wear goggles to study an incredibly bright future, not the comfortable brass-rimmed, rose-tinted lenses of those enjoying the past instead of progress. It's also the secret of the only 100 Percent Chemical-Free All-Natural Healthy Diet.
We've already seen some amazing plasma technologies -- little things like the future of free power, space engines, an x-ray source so powerful that it goes all they way up to Z, and the beginning of the Universe -- but the thing about the future is that there's always more of it. Here's some that we're building right now.
Plasma Blasting Hazardous Waste
Humanity (eventually) learned that it can't just burn all its rubbish. Because burning is the worst thing you can do with hazardous biochemicals. You're energetically giving them a carton of cigarettes and airfare, helping them into the sky to spread their unpleasant poison around the world. But the problem isn't burning them -- it's not burning them hard or smart enough.
Advancing so fast we're burning past fire
Most waste materials are made of the same atoms as everything else; the only problem is their structure. Plasma gasification utterly destroys that structure. Even the most awful poisons are helpless when you rupture every one of their atomic bonds. Which is why plasma gasification is working on destroying chemical weapons. Forget smashing things into last week -- we're smashing them all the way back to early universe, throwing them through the periodic table to shatter them down to component elements, as physics finally wins that wrestling match against chemistry. By controlling how it cools, we can convert the waste into flammable syngas fuel and an inert slag which can be used as a building material.
To replace the one we smashed, have a 3D periodic table
The only thing plasma gasification can't deal with is elementary waste, like nuclear material or heavy metals. Because if you make a plutonium plasma, it's still plutonium, but now it's a plasma, and that would make Doctor Doom hide under his big green cape like it's a safety blanket.
It's a particularly smart way to dispose of poisonous waste. It's also a particularly smart way to dispose of most other waste. It's just smart all over. It costs energy to run, but fusion plasmas will give us that, and we'll be getting useful output instead of filling chunks of our extremely finite planet with garbage. As well as diverting waste from landfills, it has potential for landfill mining, going back over our old rubbish and dealing with it properly this time. We could literally destroy our past mistakes with a plasma torch. That's the kind of gloriously empowering Utopian fantasy even video games never thought of, and video games think plasma can fix everything.
"Eat BFG, incipient back problems!"
Aircraft carriers are installing Plasma Arc Waste Destruction Systems to target enemies of the entire planet. It's accelerating us into the future so fast it's going to turn trash into jet fuel. Plasma gasification's only downside is that it costs money to build the plants in the first place. Understand that every time anyone talks about being unable to deal with their waste. We are absolutely able to deal with all that waste. They just don't want to pay for it.
Plasma Particle Accelerator Afterburner
Particle accelerators are how we get the mysteries of the universe to play chicken and win, smashing them straight into each other over and over until they give up their secrets. Most modern accelerators are immense rings of superconducting electromagnets. They look like a dragon decided to hoard intelligence instead of gold, and are even more valuable.
Dwarves wouldn't raid that. They'd worship it.
They're huge because they're limited by little things like the electrical breakdown of space. Crank up an electrical field too high, and it decides to short-circuit across a vacuum as a lightning bolt rather than run through your machine. One option is applying judo against Zeus by using this strength as our own. Instead of limiting the magnets because lightning bolts can shatter matter, we replace the magnets with the exact same process.
Nice try. You work for us now.
Plasma accelerators punch a positive column into plasma by blasting every single electron out of the way. Since electrons are attracted to the positive particles left behind, they all immediately smash back into position. Think of a motorboat tearing through the water, leaving a wake, and the water flowing back into the furrow left by the boat. In the process, we create an electric field thousands of times higher than the breakdown limit. The flow of electrons smashing back into place is a continual wave of kilo-lightning bolts. And it's possible for particles to surf this wave of kilo-lighting bolts. This is what Thor would do if she was into extreme sports.
There are two ways to set up these "plasma wakefields." The first is to blast the material with a laser to drill the positive column of charged material. The particles to be accelerated are swept up in the wake of a front which moves at the speed of light in the material. The second is to shoot the material with a bunch of accelerated electrons. The Facility for Advanced Experimental Tests (FACET) recently achieved an afterburner milestone, with accelerations 500 times greater than those in conventional particle accelerators.
Conventional particle accelerators. That's a phrase we have now. That's how smart our species can be.
FACET's fantastic attempt to build the most scientific machine in existence.
The punching particles can even create their own plasma by ionizing a neutral target gas before blasting the positive channel though it. They're hitting something so hard it turns into a particle accelerator. Of course, hitting it with a blast of particles means you need a first particle accelerator, but the particles accelerated by the plasma wakefield can end up with a much higher energy than those you used. Which is why these systems are called "plasma afterburners." I repeat: We've fitted the smartest things we ever built with plasma afterburners.
The cold plasma scalpel lets you use lightsabers for surgery. They can easily cut flesh, because a sufficiently hot plasma can cut anything that's not another plasma. The heat can cauterize tissue so that the wound won't bleed, as bleeding out is more often fatal than the original injury (and the leading cause of death from otherwise survivable combat wounds). Plasma blades also cause less collateral damage to surrounding tissue than metal blades. It also turns out that plasma is the ultimate antiseptic, annihilating microbes, so if you survive the first cut, you should be fine. All the reasons lightsabers are actually terrible weapons make them wonderful surgical tools.
If Obi-Wan had used a regular blade, Vader wouldn't have been a problem.
Plasma scalpels work by blasting pressurized gas at thousands of meters per second and electrically ionizing it. They're blowtorches built out of science-lightning. This isn't a new experimental prototype -- plasma scalpels have already been in use for years. Another case of kickass technology quietly getting on with improving the world while people are busy whining about how skateboards don't work without wheels.
And the next "plaque is a load of humanoid figures running around your teeth" advert is going to be a science-fiction massacre.
Advances in cold plasma technology -- still hotter than all solid matter, just cooler than the other plasmas -- offer more applications to the human body. Applications beyond "chopping them in half, then acting all moral because you didn't use a gun." Plasma could bring painless dentistry, as varying intensities are used to atomize instead of drilling, or to flay instead of scraping. All the old motorized metal tools are the equivalent of using a car engine inside your mouth. Plasma torches mean applying the Enterprise core instead. Pretty soon the only effect of eating a faceful of plasma will be a dazzling white smile.
"Turn it down a little, Mr. Data"
You just have to watch out for the usual headline-grabbing bullshit about plasma scalpels killing cancer cells. Everything can kill cancer cells. Hammers can kill cancer cells. The trick is not killing everything around them, and the plasma scalpel's surgical benefits are perfectly suited to that. Plasma medicine will definitely help with certain cancer treatments. But only as a side effect of helping with everything else.
Antimatter Annihilation Plasma
Matter-antimatter plasma is the most volatile anything in existence. If only temporarily. Equal parts matter and antimatter, it exists only to annihilate itself in an incredibly energetic (and paradoxical) blast. A recent paper describes how "gamma-ray bursts should arise from synchrotron emission of relativistic shocks generated within an electron-positron beam." That sentence would make the Enterprise crew duck and cover, then fist-pump as the blast destroyed them. Those gamma-ray bursts are some of the most luminous events since existence began. It turns up in the most violent astrophysical events possible: pulsars, quasars, relativistic black hole jets, and anywhere else the universe can't just crash with an energy overflow error.
Still better than getting a blue screen.
Which is why we decided to make our own electron-positron beam for study. Because we're awesome.
As described in the same paper, the ASTRA-GEMINI petawatt twin laser system in the UK's Central Laser Facility was used to generate a relativistic electron-positron beam. Not only is it made of equal parts matter and antimatter, so that it will utterly destroy itself in a blast of radiation, but it's approaching the speed of light in the process. Live so fast you don't even leave a corpse -- just a beautiful explosion. Even in academic papers, this is referred to as a "fireball beam". It's the particle physicist's special move
Charge backwards for two advanced physics degrees, then forward and PLASMA PUNCH!
The GEMINI laser was focused on a supersonic Helium jet to produce an electron beam by plasma acceleration (because awesome things enabling even more awesome things is the whole point of science), then this electron beam fired into a lead target to trigger a quantum electrodynamic cascade, producing the fireball beam. This is what Rube Goldberg would have built if he'd been the smartest person who ever lived. The quantum cascade actually emits a combined beam of electrons, positrons, and light, a fireball beam so spectacular it generates its own spotlight. That's how intense this science is: A solid layer of lead doesn't shield against the radiation, but creates it. This is a blast of radiation so smart it convinces lead to switch sides.
We've created a matter-neutral plasma, a sample of existence's energetic overload condition, just so that we can study it better. So we can understand it better. And the "it" in that sentence was the existence.
Because all the best relationships are based on understanding
This is the point of us. This is the meaning of life. We see the greatest lights in the sky and the deepest mysteries of the void, and we build both to work out why they happen. And how they can make things better. And then we share that knowledge. Our entire strength as a species comes from communication and learning.
Science is our candle in the dark. Now it shines like a quasar. Because the dark is the same stupid dark it's always been, but we're getting brighter every day.
Luke loves Feynmann. Luke conducts his own optics experiments by Finding the Focal Length of Whiskey. He also reveals Why The Mars One Mission Might As Well Be Magic
Keep powering into the future with 5 Plasma Technologies That Put Video Game Weapons to Shame and Pew Pew! 5 Incredible Lasers That Will Change The World.
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