What is an Electrolaser?

Man with hands on hips

An electrolaser is a hybrid optical/electrical directed energy weapon. It works by ionizing an air corridor using laser-induced blooming and then sending an electrical current to a target through the conductive channel. This is similar to how an electrical discharge works.

At least two defense contractors have created handheld electrolaser weapons – Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems of Anderson, Indiana, and Ionatron of Tucson, Arizona. Ionatron markets its proprietary Laser Induced Plasma Channel (LIPC) technology as “man-made lightning” and wants to “replace weapons as the weapon of choice in short-range defense.” An electrolaser can be lethal or non-lethal, depending on the voltage used.

Typically, flourishing is the bane of laser defense technology – at power densities above one megajoule per square centimeter, a laser strips electrons from the nuclei of air molecules, creating a plasma and redirecting energy from the main beam. A number of strategies have been devised in an attempt to circumvent this, including the use of large mirrors to project a focus onto the target or laser pulses so short that flowering does not have time to occur. The electrolaser is the only directed energy weapon that takes advantage of flourishing rather than working against it.

The region of plasma created by laser-induced flourishing can become highly conductive if enough electrons are released from their atomic orbits. This provides the perfect conduit for passing current to a target in a moderate range. Using step-up transformers, an electrolaser system creates a high voltage, low amperage alternating current to power the plasma corridor. To create a complete circuit, there must be a way to make the current flow back, which can be done via an auxiliary laser beam or a sufficiently strong ground current. Depending on its size and application, an electrolaser gun can use an electromotive force between a thousand and a billion volts.

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The electrolaser is one of several directed energy weapons that some military leaders and scientists have claimed is the inevitable next step in warfare. Electrolaser technology would be particularly useful for disabling electronics without needing to fire a shot. Peacemakers hope that the non-lethal nature of some electrolaser systems will minimize casualties in conflicts in the future.

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