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Plasma technologies: Revolutionizing Space, Defense, and Beyond

In the realm of matter, plasma stands out as the fourth state, distinct from solids, liquids, and gases. A fascinating entity, plasma arises when gas becomes ionized, where at least one electron breaks free from atoms or molecules. This ionization transforms the gas into an electrically conductive medium, responding robustly to electromagnetic fields.

A predominant feature of the universe, over 99% of its visible matter exists in the plasma state, with the sun serving as a quintessential example. Earth’s vitality hinges on the energy emitted by plasma during fusion reactions within the sun, emphasizing its indispensable role in sustaining life.

Closer to home, natural manifestations of plasma include lightning, auroras, and Saint Elmo’s fire. Beyond these occurrences, plasma can also be artificially generated by energizing a gas, creating a distinction between fusion plasmas and gas discharge plasmas. Fusion plasmas, replicating solar conditions, hold promise for future energy sources. Gas discharge plasmas, operating at lower temperatures, show potential for renewable electricity applications.


Technologically, plasmas find diverse applications, from fluorescent lighting to semiconductor manufacturing through plasma processing. Commercially available plasma torches are employed for industrial purposes, although current models produce relatively limited plasma jets. A notable exception is the MARAUDER (Magnetically Accelerated Ring to Achieve Ultra-high Directed-Energy and Radiation) used in the Shiva Star project, displaying the capability to accelerate a plasma toroid at a significant percentage of the speed of light, albeit at a substantial energy cost.

Plasma: The fourth state of matter - Science Reflections and Insights

From space exploration to hypersonic propulsion, aircraft stealth, and Directed-Energy Weapons (DEWs), plasma is emerging as a transformative force, promising unprecedented advancements in these critical domains.

Plasma Propulsion: Navigating the Cosmos at Unprecedented Speeds

One of the most exciting frontiers in space exploration lies in the development of advanced propulsion systems, and plasma propulsion is at the forefront of this revolution. Traditional chemical rockets, while effective, are limited by their dependence on massive fuel loads. Enter plasma thrusters, a new generation of ion thrusters that utilize ionized gases like xenon, powered by solar-generated electricity.

Electric propulsion engines, or plasma thrusters, utilize ionized gases like xenon, propelled by solar-generated electricity. These engines offer advantages such as reduced weight, increased efficiency, and prolonged acceleration in the vacuum of space, making them pivotal for long-distance solar system exploration.

For starters, the ionized gases used as the propellants in plasma thrusters weigh less than the fuels burned by the thrusters of the Apollo era. Every pound the spacecraft saves by lessening its fuel load means more weight to carry a larger scientific payload. Moreover, once a plasma-powered craft is in space, it can accelerate over time in a way that fuel-burning craft can’t, ultimately giving these lightweight engines a speed advantage as well.  In the vacuum of space, with nothing to diminish the spacecraft’s forward momentum, these puffs of ionized thrust allow the vessel to pick up speed over time, going both faster and further than fuel-burning spacecraft.

In recent years, we have witnessed missions like Deep Space 1 and the Dawn spacecraft, both equipped with plasma thrusters, exploring asteroids and the asteroid belt. As researchers continue to refine and enhance plasma propulsion technology, the future of interplanetary travel seems poised for a revolutionary leap.

China’s plasma drive

The Institute of Technological Science at Wuhan recently published a paper announcing the creation of a prototype ‘plasma drive’ that could lift a small steel ball across a one-inch quartz tube – the same level of thrust required to power a commercial aircraft engine, according to South China Morning Post. While this is only a prototype, the hope is that a larger version could pave a route forwards for a green alternative to the fossil-fuel hungry engines that power aircraft today. Unlike the ion thrusters that have been used in space travel which use propellants such as hydrogen, this concept uses air – a potentially unlimited source.

This design, says SCMP, uses pressurised air injected to a chamber where it’s then subjected to extremely high temperatures at over 1,000 degrees Celsius, as well as microwaves, creating an ionised plasma in the process – which is then expelled for the propulsion. “There is no need for fossil fuel with our design, and therefore, there is no carbon emission to cause a greenhouse effect or global warming,” lead author on the report at Wuhan University, professor Jau Tang, told the paper.

Part of the secret sauce here is in the flattened waveguide through which the microwaves are fired. Generated by a 1-kW, 2.45-Gh magnetron, the microwaves are sent down a waveguide that’s squeezed down to half its height as it approaches the plasma tube. This is done to boost its electric field strength and impart as much heat and pressure to the plasma as possible.

 Initial tests show the prototype generating a thrust comparable to commercial jet engines in terms of efficiency. Imagine, powered by air, not gallons of polluting fuel! However, the road to widespread adoption is bumpy. The current prototype delivers a mere fraction of the thrust needed to lift an airplane, requiring an exponential boost for practical application.

In efficiency terms, the propulsion force at 400 W and 1.45 cubic meters of air per hour was 11 Newtons, representing a conversion of power into thrust at a rate of 28 N/kW. One of the greatest hurdles for Tang’s jet engine is that his team’s prototype currently provides a mere 10 newtons of thrusts, which is the equivalent of an average-sized Estes hobby rocket. For this machine to lift an entire airplane, its output would have to be boosted exponentially. For example, the current Air Force One 747-200B jet’s four engines deliver nearly 240,000 newtons of thrust, making the amount of electricity generating batteries to produce this type of power using Tang’s novel approach impossible with today’s technology.

Additionally, the technology demands significant energy input, currently relying on powerful microwaves and air compressors. Managing the extreme temperatures generated by the plasma also presents a significant hurdle.

Yet, the potential rewards are too alluring to ignore. Scaling up the technology and overcoming these challenges could lead to dramatic benefits. Imagine electric planes traversing the skies without harming the environment, or cleaner propulsion for drones, ships, and even automobiles. The possibilities are exhilarating!

Improving the efficiency of the microwave system and exploring alternative frequencies could be key to reducing energy consumption. Harnessing magnetic fields to control the plasma and advanced materials to withstand the heat are also areas of active research. Furthermore, hybridizing the plasma drive with existing technologies like electric motors could offer a faster path to practical application.

Plasma Technology: Energizing the Future of Energy Storage

Beyond propulsion, plasma emerges as a pivotal player in energy storage applications. Its ionized gas composition proves conducive to activating inert molecules like CO2 and N2, enabling thermodynamically challenging reactions to occur at ambient conditions. Plasma’s ability to be easily switched on/off, driven by electric power, makes it a promising candidate for utilizing intermittent renewable electricity.

Plasma, the often overlooked fourth state of matter, is emerging as a game-changer in the energy storage arena. Unlike traditional batteries, plasma technology harnesses the power of ionized gas to efficiently convert readily available gasses like CO2 and N2 into valuable chemicals or even renewable fuels. This holds immense promise for several reasons:

1. Taming the Untamable: Plasma’s energetic electrons act as tiny molecular wranglers, activating inert gasses like CO2 and N2 at surprisingly mild temperatures and pressures. This opens up a whole new avenue for utilizing these abundant gasses, turning them from environmental burdens into valuable resources.

2. Renewable Power on Demand: Plasma technology thrives on electricity, and the best part is, it’s readily controllable. Unlike the ever-present sun and wind, plasma reactors can be switched on or off at will, making them ideal partners for integrating intermittent renewable energy sources into the grid. This opens the door for a more sustainable and flexible energy future.

3. Energy Efficiency Champion: Imagine selectively heating just the electrons, not the entire gas. This is the magic of plasma! By focusing energy on these tiny particles, plasma technology achieves efficient activation, maximizing the output of valuable chemicals or fuels while minimizing energy waste.

In essence, plasma technology is like a molecular sculptor, using the power of electricity to reshape the landscape of energy storage. From mitigating CO2 emissions to providing flexible energy solutions, the potential of this technology is truly electrifying.

Hypersonic Speed Through the Power of Directed Energy

Hypersonic vehicles, hurtling through the atmosphere, battle immense friction and heat, pushing the limits of materials and design. But a revolutionary concept emerges from the realm of directed energy: blasting the air ahead with lasers, creating a path for unprecedented speed and efficiency.

At hypersonic speeds, air resistance becomes a monstrous force, generating scorching heat that can melt components and tear apart vehicles. Traditional solutions, like heavy heat shields and aerodynamic tweaking, come at the cost of weight and maneuverability. This is where directed energy, long a whisper in the corridors of defense research, steps onto the stage.

Imagine a laser beam, a searing spear of concentrated energy, carving a path through the air. This is the essence of energy deposition, a concept that involves using lasers, microwaves, or even electric arcs to manipulate the air ahead of a hypersonic vehicle. By creating a low-density “plasma” or manipulating shockwaves, the drag force can be dramatically reduced.

The concept, though seemingly fantastical, has seen years of research. Pioneering work by Leik Myrabo in the 80s laid the foundation, proposing “laser-supported detonation” waves and pulsed microwave propulsion.

In a 1983 NASA-funded study conducted by the BDM Corporation and authored by Leik Myrabo, pioneer of the laser lightcraft propulsion concept, Myrabo proposed using lasers to literally explode the air in front of a high-speed craft. Myrabo’s initial concept centered on small lightcraft propelled by ground-based lasers focused on their aft section. These proposed craft would also employ internal mirrored optics to then redirect those beams forward to create a “laser-supported detonation” or “LSD wave” in front of the craft.


This LSD wave would create a detached shockwave “at some distance in advance of the leading edge,” which would theoretically “do the work of pushing the atmosphere out of the way and thereby suppress the formation of a strong bow shock and the associated wave drag.” The hot, pressurized gases created by the LSD wave would also theoretically then be used by the craft’s air-breathing engine, thus reducing the amount of energy required for combustion.

Subsequent studies by researchers in Brazil, the US, and Australia built upon this theoretical framework, conducting wind tunnel tests and demonstrating drag reductions of up to 40%.

NASA even conducted a study in 2017 at the Langley Research Center into the “experimental determination of the drag reduction and energetic efficiency” of laser discharges ahead of simulated aircraft traveling at high speeds, and the Department of Energy (DOE) has looked into the same concept for increasing the performance of wind turbines.

While the potential is staggering, significant hurdles remain. High-powered, miniaturized energy sources are crucial, as are robust systems for controlling and directing the energy deposition. Heat management and ensuring the system’s stability are also critical challenges. In a 2019 patent, PM&AM’s Kremeyer claims that his system can reduce drag, aid propulsion, and reduce the thermal effects an aircraft experiences by ionizing and heating the air immediately around the vehicle with short laser pulses. Microwave energy is then pulsed into that laser-induced plasma to further heat the air in front of the vehicle:

Despite these obstacles, the potential rewards are too alluring to ignore. Imagine hypersonic vehicles gliding through the air with minimal drag, reaching unimaginable speeds while consuming less fuel. Military applications, from rapid global deployment to advanced reconnaissance, are readily apparent. But the benefits extend far beyond the battlefield. Faster cargo delivery, streamlined space travel, and even revolutionizing clean energy generation with efficient wind turbines are just a few possibilities.

Stealth Through Plasma: Redefining Aircraft Concealment

The concept of plasma stealth represents a paradigm shift in the realm of aircraft concealment from radar detection. Plasmas, known for their interaction with electromagnetic radiation, can be harnessed to modify an object’s radar signature. The creation of an ionized “layer” at the aircraft’s nose or leading edge forms a plasma cloud that interacts with enemy radar waves in ways that reduce the reflected signal and diminish the radar cross-section (RCS) of the aircraft.

The principle of plasma stealth is to generate an ionized “layer” at nose/ leading edge that surrounds the aircraft. When the plasma cloud interacts with electromagnetic waves radiated by enemy radar several phenomena result.  First, absorption of electromagnetic energy occurs because of its interaction with plasma charged particles, which pass onto them a portion of its energy. Second, due to specific physical processes, electromagnetic wave tends to pass around plasma cloud. Both of these phenomena results in dramatic decrease of the reflected signal and reduction in the radar cross-section (RCS) of an aircraft.

Plasma is capable of absorbing/spreading a wide range of radar frequencies, angles, polarizations, and power densities. However, Plasma stealth technology also faces various technical problems. For example, the plasma itself emits EM radiation, fortunately this is usually weak and noise-like in spectrum. Also, it takes some time for plasma to be re-absorbed by the atmosphere and a trail of ionized air would be created behind the moving aircraft, but at present there is no method to detect this kind of plasma trail at long distance. Thirdly, plasmas (like glow discharges or fluorescent lights) tend to emit a visible glow: this is not compatible with overall low observability concept. However, present optical detection devices like FLIR has a shorter range than radar, so Plasma Stealth still has an operational range space.

While plasma stealth technology faces challenges, such as the potential emission of weak electromagnetic radiation and the creation of visible glows incompatible with low observability, researchers are actively addressing these issues.  The promise of rendering aircraft nearly invisible to radar opens up new possibilities in the realm of military aviation, where stealth and surprise play pivotal roles.

New Plasma Tech Promises Defense Against Electromagnetic Weapons

The growing threat of electromagnetic weapons (EMPs) has cast a shadow over the digital age. These powerful weapons can cripple electronic systems with a burst of electromagnetic energy, potentially causing widespread disruption and chaos. But a ray of hope emerges from China, where a research team has unveiled a promising solution: a “low-temperature plasma shield.”

The EMP Threat: A Looming Challenge

EMPs are not new. They can occur naturally through solar flares or be man-made through specialized devices. However, the proliferation of sophisticated EMP weapons raises serious concerns. A successful attack could disable critical infrastructure, communication networks, and even military hardware, leading to devastating consequences.

A Plasma Shield for the Digital Age

Led by Dr. Chen Zongsheng of the National University of Defence Technology, a team of researchers has developed a groundbreaking defense mechanism: the low-temperature plasma shield. This innovative technology utilizes plasma, a state of matter where atoms are stripped of some of their electrons, creating a charged gas.

How Does It Work?

The plasma-based energy shield represents a paradigm shift in defensive strategies. Instead of directly countering electromagnetic assaults, it converts the attacker’s energy into a defensive force. By creating a stable layer of plasma with minimal electrical energy, the shield absorbs and reflects incoming electromagnetic waves, effectively neutralizing the threat. The low-temperature plasma shield acts like a shield, deflecting the incoming electromagnetic pulse. The charged particles in the plasma interact with the EMP’s energy field, effectively diverting it away from the protected electronics. Once the attack subsides, the plasma promptly reverts to its original state, ready to fend off future assaults.

Early Results Show Promise

Tests conducted by Dr. Chen’s team demonstrate the shield’s effectiveness. It successfully defended sensitive circuits from EMP bombardments with a power output of up to 170kW, at a distance of just 3 meters. This is a significant feat, showcasing the technology’s potential to provide crucial protection against EMP attacks.

Looking Ahead: Further Development and Applications

While these initial results are encouraging, further research and development are necessary. Optimizing the shield’s effectiveness at varying power levels and distances is crucial. Developing such a sophisticated defense system comes with its own set of challenges. The shield must not interfere with passing low-power electromagnetic waves, and its effective response frequency must be wide enough to thwart potential frequency changes by adversaries.

Additionally, the energy-generating device itself must withstand high-powered microwave attacks while maintaining minimal size, mass, and energy consumption. Additionally, exploring ways to miniaturize the technology for broader application in mobile devices and military equipment is essential.

A Step Toward a More Secure Future

The low-temperature plasma shield represents a significant advancement in the defense against EMP threats. This technology has the potential to safeguard critical infrastructure, ensuring a more resilient and secure digital future. With continued development, this innovative plasma shield could become a vital tool in protecting our increasingly interconnected world from the dangers of electromagnetic warfare.

Directed-Energy Weapons (DEWs): Harnessing the Power of Plasma

In military domains, the demand for Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) is on the rise, encompassing lasers and high-power microwaves. These focused energy systems hold potential applications as personnel weapons, missile defense systems, and for disabling various targets. Plasma weapons, a subset of DEWs, are under exploration, envisioning beams, bolts, or streams of plasma for future weaponry.

Envision a plasma rifle capable of cutting through various materials or a plasma shield that instantaneously incinerates incoming ammunition and missiles. The unique properties of plasma make it an intriguing candidate for the development of next-generation DEWs. As research progresses, we may witness the integration of plasma-based weaponry into military arsenals, offering enhanced precision and efficiency.

Plasma Weapons: Beyond Fiction, Towards Reality

Plasma weapons, once relegated to the realm of science fiction, are inching closer to reality. Let’s explore the current state of development and the exciting possibilities this technology holds:

Damage Mechanisms:

  • Thermal: The primary damage mechanism of plasma weapons is intense heat. Ionized particles, traveling at high speeds, transfer their energy to the target, causing severe burns, melting, or even evaporation.
  • Kinetic: In some designs, plasma weapons also utilize the kinetic energy of the ionized gas, adding a physical impact force alongside the thermal damage.
  • Electromagnetic: In specific cases like Star Wars, plasma weapons can disrupt electronic systems in droids or other machines by inducing electromagnetic interference.

Plasma Railgun Innovation

One notable avenue of exploration is the development of plasma railguns, a concept blending cutting-edge technology with the fictional allure of devastating weaponry. Unlike traditional railguns that use conductive rails to propel solid slugs, a plasma railgun leverages ionized gas-like particles as its armature and ejected projectile. Two primary topologies, linear and coaxial, have emerged in the design of these futuristic weapons.

Linear Plasma Railguns

Linear railguns consist of two flat plate electrodes separated by insulating spacers, accelerating sheet armatures. In the realm of plasma railguns, these devices operate in a vacuum, not at atmospheric pressure. The absence of air resistance allows them to achieve muzzle velocities of several hundreds of kilometers per second. The practical applications of linear plasma railguns extend to Magnetic Confinement Fusion (MCF), Magneto-Inertial Fusion (MIF), High Energy Density Physics research (HEDP), laboratory astrophysics, and even as a potential plasma propulsion engine for spacecraft.

Coaxial Plasma Railguns

Coaxial railguns introduce a different approach, utilizing a hollow outer conductor and a central, concentric, inner conductor to accelerate toroidal plasma armatures. This design variation offers unique advantages and challenges, contributing to the evolving landscape of plasma weaponry research.

Phased Plasma: A Novel Approach

In the realm of innovation, enthusiasts like Alex Smyth have taken the concept of plasma railguns a step further with the development of “phased plasma” technology. Smyth’s creation diverges from conventional railgun designs by incorporating twisted rails, forming a double helix. This ingenious twist not only imparts spin to the projectile but also enhances stability, reminiscent of the rifling in traditional firearm barrels.

Smyth’s projectiles, measuring 10 by 60 millimeters, are glass vacuum tubes filled with neon gas, encased in a copper sleeve. The electromagnetic fields generated by the twisted rails ionize the gas, creating plasma that is released upon impact. This novel approach showcases the intersection of creativity and scientific principles, pushing the boundaries of what plasma weapons can achieve.

Current Status and Applications:

  • While still in development, plasma railguns offer several advantages over conventional weapons, including:
    • High velocities: Plasma can reach speeds exceeding hundreds of kilometers per second, making them effective against long-range targets.
    • Penetration: Plasma can penetrate armor and other materials more effectively than traditional projectiles.
    • Reduced collateral damage: Precise targeting and localized energy deposition can minimize unintended damage to surrounding areas.

Challenges and the Future:

  • Several challenges need to be addressed before plasma weapons become mainstream:
    • Energy source: Generating and sustaining the immense power required for plasma propulsion and weapons remains a significant hurdle.
    • Control and stability: Accurately controlling and directing the plasma beam is crucial for effectiveness and safety.
    • Heat management: The intense heat generated by plasma technology requires advanced cooling systems.

Despite these challenges, the potential of plasma technology is immense. As research progresses and technological barriers fall, we may see plasma weapons transition from science fiction to reality, potentially revolutionizing warfare. But beyond the battlefield, plasma technology holds the promise to unlock new frontiers in energy generation, space exploration, and scientific discovery.

The Future of Plasma Technologies

In the quest for hypersonic vehicle innovation, the Department of Defense (DoD) has been researching a radical drag reduction technique involving plasma sheathing. This pioneering approach envisions enveloping an entire vehicle in laser- or microwave-induced plasma, aiming to dramatically reduce drag. If successful, this concept could redefine speed limits and open avenues for groundbreaking aerodynamic control and aircraft design.

As we peer into the future of aerospace technology, the role of plasma technologies becomes increasingly evident. From propelling spacecraft through the cosmos to concealing aircraft from radar detection and deploying advanced directed-energy weapons, plasma is poised to redefine the possibilities of flight and defense.

Ongoing research and collaboration across scientific disciplines are driving these innovations forward. Whether it’s the quest for more efficient space exploration, the pursuit of stealth capabilities in military aviation, or the development of advanced weaponry, plasma technologies stand as a testament to human ingenuity and our relentless pursuit of progress.

In the coming years, we anticipate witnessing the practical applications of plasma technologies, not only pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in aerospace but also opening doors to new discoveries and capabilities that will shape the future of our exploration of the skies and beyond. As we navigate these frontiers, the fusion of plasma and technology propels us toward a future where the once-unimaginable becomes reality.
























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