Can a science fiction book's sales fund development of a futuristic laser weapon? A physicist hopes to find out with his "Dragon Empire" book that envisions such a weapon helping to fend off a Chinese invasion during a future war.
The "Dragon Empire" book imagines how lasers, hypersonic missiles, stealth aircraft and satellite weapons might influence a huge war between China, the U.S. and U.S. allies in 2025. But the book's real purpose is to help fund Lightning Gun Inc., a startup aimed at making laser weapons capable of knocking out guided missiles with electronics-disabling electromagnetic pulses (EMPs).
"I never had a good idea for an entire fiction book until I started to realize that if directed energy weapons did nullify the effect of guided missile technology, then all of warfare would be changed — especially strategy and tactics," said Adam Weigold, founder and CEO of Lightning Gun Inc.
Weigold hopes to raise $20,000 on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to get professional editing and marketing for the book's planned release in November. The book's sales would ideally represent one way for Lightning Gun to fund large-scale laser experiments by raising $2 million over the next few years.
How to make a laser weapon
The U.S. military has investigated the idea of laser-powered EMPs in the past. High-energy lasers can create an ionized ball of plasma by ripping electrons from molecules in the air — enough to generate a small EMP pulse that could knock out the electronic sensors and guidance systems of missiles. That means an F-35 fighter jet armed with a kilowatt-class laser could theoretically become invincible against a swarm of missiles.
But earlier experiments faltered because the lasers could not focus accurately over greater distances to ensure an EMP knockout blow. Differences in air pressure, clouds and smoky conditions can throw the laser targeting off by 98 to 164 feet (30 to 50 meters) over a firing distance of 0.6 miles (1 kilometer), whereas the laser-powered EMP can only hit targets about 7 to 16 feet (2 to 5 meters) within range of the laser's focal point. [Video: Navy Fires Laser HEL On Target Vessel]
"Our patent-pending technology not only dramatically improves the focal accuracy of the laser plasma but helps to focus the EMP energy produced directly at the target," Weigold told TechNewsDaily.
If Lightning Gun can raise about $300,000 to $500,000 to set itself up, Weigold plans to apply for U.S. Department of Defense funding through the small business innovation research program that requires companies to have established employees and security clearances. The Australian-born physicist has already moved his startup to the U.S. and unofficially recruited several physicists and engineers.
Such research may come with even greater uncertainties than the average Kickstarter project — Weigold acknowledges that there is no guarantee that Lightning Gun can successfully scale its experimental results up to the kilowatt power levels needed for a viable weapon. But he hopes successful funding and testing can lead to an operational weapon within three or four years.
A future world at war
Luckily, Kickstarter donors don't have to worry about the research project's likelihood of success or failure. They just have to decide if they like Weigold's storytelling enough to donate $10 and up to preorder their copy of the final book. (A 5-chapter sample of "Dragon Empire" sets the stage for China's fleets to launch simultaneous strikes on Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Hawaii even as the first U.S. female president is sworn into office.)
The "Dragon Empire" story reflects a future in which China's hardliners win the battle for control over more liberal politicians, Weigold said. He envisions a full-scale war as more of a "worst-case scenario" in reality, but pointed to the possibility for smaller conflicts as the U.S. moves to enhance cooperation with its Pacific allies and China faces territorial disputes with neighbors such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Whatever the future, Weigold sees laser-powered EMP (LEMP) and other energy weapons as game-changing military technologies. "Remote weapons" such as guided missiles and drones have become dominant offensive weapons capable of dealing out death and damage from afar, but laser weapons offer the possibility of a cost-effective defense against missiles and drones in the future.
"I think as laser weapons (and LEMP) become smaller and cheaper, they have the real potential to offer defenders "remote shielding," which will be the first real challenge to the era of remote weapons," Weigold said.
This story was provided by TechNewsDaily, a sister site to SPACE.com. You can follow TechNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @jeremyhsu. Follow TechNewsDaily on Twitter @TechNewsDaily. We're also on Facebook & Google+.
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Jeremy Hsu is science writer based in New York City whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Discovery Magazine, Backchannel, Wired.com and IEEE Spectrum, among others. He joined the Space.com and Live Science teams in 2010 as a Senior Writer and is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Indicate Media. Jeremy studied history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, and earned a master's degree in journalism from the NYU Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. You can find Jeremy's latest project on Twitter.