When cinemagoers saw Star Wars in the late 1970s, one of the great revelations was the replacement of bullets with lasers – both the stormtroopers and the rebel alliance soldiers wielded blasters that shot deadly rays.
Has China caught up with the Han Solo era? That seemed to be the verdict of the South China Morning Post in a scoop this week that a Chinese firm is commercialising a laser gun.
“This is no longer science fiction,” Wang Zhimin, an expert in laser technology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), told the newspaper solemnly. The prototype rifle weighs about the same as an AK-47 and shoots laser beams about half a mile. With a fully charged battery pack it can deliver 1,000 shots.
The ZKZM-500 assault rifle was developed by arms firm ZKZM Laser. It produces a soundless energy flow invisible to the naked eye, but researchers who spoke anonymously told the newspaper that the “carbonising” beam soon sets its targets on fire.
ZKZM is looking for financial support for licensing and production of the rifle, which is expected to cost about Rmb100,000 per gun. But it says it will only sell the weapon to the Chinese military and the nation’s anti-terrorism police squads.
The SCMP posits that the Chinese are ahead of the rest of the world in this type of technology, helped by a Rmb2 billion ($300 million) state fund to promote the development of compact laser devices. A document on a government website categorises the ZKZM-500 as a “non-lethal weapon” but researchers say that it inflicts severe harm – theoretically, beams aimed for long enough should burn holes through bodies.
A likely use is a lower strength version of the laser being deployed in cases of urban unrest against rioters. Meanwhile there are sceptics who question the weapon’s battlefield capabilities. The website Techcrunch is one of many doubters of the company’s claims. “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 metres,” it argued. “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 metres. By the time you get out to 800 [metres], the air and water the beam has travelled through is enough to reduce it to a fraction of its original power.”
Perhaps stung by the naysayers ZKZM this week released video footage of the gun being tested on a series of items on a rooftop in Xi’an. In one example, laser rays aimed at a piece of pork get the meat smoking almost instantly. It isn’t clear at what distance the weapon is being deployed in the video, but the team said none of the tests were carried out at its maximum range.
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