Science calls bullshit on China's 'AK-47 laser gun'

China has allegedly developed a 'laser gun' that can burn you to death. It probably doesn't exist.

Exterior design of the ZKZM-500, c/o South China Morning Post
Exterior design of the ZKZM-500, c/o South China Morning Post

Forgive me for beginning this with a personal anecdote but (grabs chair, spins it around, sits on it backwards like a "cool pastor") I remember when I was a kid pretending that I had a laser gun. I ran around the backyard yelling PEW PEW PEW and pointing a stick at squirrels. I'm not alone in this fascination with lasers: they have long been in the public realm of consciousness as a futuristic weapon. But, much like flying cars, they have yet to come to pass. 


Until (drum roll, please) now. 

According to the South China Morning Post, the Chinese army has developed the ZKZM-500, a laser so powerful that it (allegedly) can "instantly carbonize" your skin from a kilometer away. It is (they say) capable of a thousand two-second shots in one charge of its lithium-ion battery (not dissimilar, although one can imagine bigger, to the battery that charges your iPhone).

Sound scary? It should. And there's a reason for that: the weapon most likely doesn't exist. The physics are practically impossible. Realistically, the battery alone would have to weigh several hundred pounds to provide the energy needed to fire a hot laser beam a kilometer. Not only that, the beam itself would have a hard time once it left the gun. As the beam passes through the air—and more importantly, the water molecules in the air—the 'heat' of the beam would disseminate, rendering it little more than uncomfortably warm if fired anywhere further than the width of an average living room. A far cry from the "instant carbonization" threat that is, curiously, all over Twitter. As TechCrunch puts it

There’s just no way that a laser powered by a lithium-ion battery that a person could carry would be capable of producing the kind of heat described at point blank range, let alone at 800 meters.

That’s because of attenuation. Lasers, unlike bullets, scatter as they progress, making them weaker and weaker. Attenuation is non-trivial at anything beyond, say, a few dozen meters. By the time you get out to 800, the air and water the beam has traveled through enough to reduce it a fraction of its original power.

Of course there are lasers that can fire from Earth to space and vice versa—but they’re not trying to fry protestors; all that matters is that a few photons arrive at the destination and are intelligible as a signal.

The most the laser could do is harm your eyes, as your eyes can fail from an overload of light, which a handheld laser could provide. But, again, this is a very, very long stretch from hilarious lines like this, from Business Insider Australia (of all places):

Because the laser has been tuned to an invisible frequency, and it produces absolutely no sound, “nobody will know where the attack came from. It will look like an accident,” another researcher said. The scientists requested not to be named due to the sensitivity of the project.

And then there's this doozy, from the same article:

For instance... law enforcement could counter “illegal protests” by setting fire to banners from a long distance.

It also says protest leaders could be targeted by setting fire to their clothing or hair which, the document says, would mean they lose “the rhythms of their speech and powers of persuasion”.

But one Beijing police officer said he would prefer to stick to more traditional crowd-control methods such as tear gas, rubber bullets or electrical stun guns, such as tasers.

“The laser burn will leave a permanent scar,” he said. He said it would be a “horrid sight” that risked causing panic or transforming a peaceful protest into a riot.

The verdict? It's probably a press release designed to instill fear in opponents of the Chinese government (right down to the mention of 'illegal protests'). The very idea of an invisible laser that can set you on fire is much more effective than the actual implementation of the weapon itself, because the only thing scarier than this gun is the idea of getting shot by it. In the wise words of my old English professor: "If you heard a rumor that your landlord had a shotgun, you'd sure as shit pay your rent on time." 

As Xi Jinping clings on to power by any means necessary, it should surprise nobody that dubiously worded claims about futuristic weapons are being bandied about like drunken boasts at a frat-party. Consider the timing of this news, just a week or two after President Trump began rambling publically about his proposed 'Space Force'. 

Besides, the prototype looks almost exactly like the laser gun from Akira

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
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Volcanoes to power bitcoin mining in El Salvador

The first nation to make bitcoin legal tender will use geothermal energy to mine it.

Credit: Aaron Thomas via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

In June 2021, El Salvador became the first nation in the world to make bitcoin legal tender. Soon after, President Nayib Bukele instructed a state-owned power company to provide bitcoin mining facilities with cheap, clean energy — harnessed from the country's volcanoes.

The challenge: Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a digital form of money and a payment system. Crypto has several advantages over physical dollars and cents — it's incredibly difficult to counterfeit, and transactions are more secure — but it also has a major downside.

Crypto transactions are recorded and new coins are added into circulation through a process called mining.

Crypto mining involves computers solving incredibly difficult mathematical puzzles. It is also incredibly energy-intensive — Cambridge University researchers estimate that bitcoin mining alone consumes more electricity every year than Argentina.

Most of that electricity is generated by carbon-emitting fossil fuels. As it stands, bitcoin mining produces an estimated 36.95 megatons of CO2 annually.

A world first: On June 9, El Salvador became the first nation to make bitcoin legal tender, meaning businesses have to accept it as payment and citizens can use it to pay taxes.

Less than a day later, Bukele tweeted that he'd instructed a state-owned geothermal electric company to put together a plan to provide bitcoin mining facilities with "very cheap, 100% clean, 100% renewable, 0 emissions energy."

Geothermal electricity is produced by capturing heat from the Earth itself. In El Salvador, that heat comes from volcanoes, and an estimated two-thirds of their energy potential is currently untapped.

Why it matters: El Salvador's decision to make bitcoin legal tender could be a win for both the crypto and the nation itself.

"(W)hat it does for bitcoin is further legitimizes its status as a potential reserve asset for sovereign and super sovereign entities," Greg King, CEO of crypto asset management firm Osprey Funds, told CBS News of the legislation.

Meanwhile, El Salvador is one of the poorest nations in North America, and bitcoin miners — the people who own and operate the computers doing the mining — receive bitcoins as a reward for their efforts.

"This is going to evolve fast!"
NAYIB BUKELE

If El Salvador begins operating bitcoin mining facilities powered by clean, cheap geothermal energy, it could become a global hub for mining — and receive a much-needed economic boost in the process.

The next steps: It remains to be seen whether Salvadorans will fully embrace bitcoin — which is notoriously volatile — or continue business-as-usual with the nation's other legal tender, the U.S. dollar.

Only time will tell if Bukele's plan for volcano-powered bitcoin mining facilities comes to fruition, too — but based on the speed of things so far, we won't have to wait long to find out.

Less than three hours after tweeting about the idea, Bukele followed up with another tweet claiming that the nation's geothermal energy company had already dug a new well and was designing a "mining hub" around it.

"This is going to evolve fast!" the president promised.

How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine

How were mRNA vaccines developed? Pfizer's Dr Bill Gruber explains the science behind this record-breaking achievement and how it was developed without compromising safety.

How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine
Sponsored by Pfizer
  • Wondering how Pfizer and partner BioNTech developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time without compromising safety? Dr Bill Gruber, SVP of Pfizer Vaccine Clinical Research and Development, explains the process from start to finish.
  • "I told my team, at first we were inspired by hope and now we're inspired by reality," Dr Gruber said. "If you bring critical science together, talented team members together, government, academia, industry, public health officials—you can achieve what was previously the unachievable."
  • The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine has not been approved or licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but has been authorized for emergency use by FDA under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to prevent COVID-19 for use in individuals 12 years of age and older. The emergency use of this product is only authorized for the duration of the emergency declaration unless ended sooner. See Fact Sheet: cvdvaccine-us.com/recipients.

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