Is a Real Lightsaber Possible?
Is a Real Lightsaber Possible?
(And if not, how close can we get to one?)
Greetings, Nerd Legion! Ever since we first saw Luke Skywalker battle Darth Vader with a lightsaber, we’ve all had the same question: Where do I get one of those? Could we ever hope to see one in the real world? If not, how close to one can we get?
According to the Star Wars franchise, a lightsaber is an energy sword. It’s described either as being made of magnetically contained plasma or pure energy and it’s about 3 feet long from hilt to tip. The blade is retractable into the hilt. It can cut and burn almost anything except for:
- Cortosis, a rare mineral from the Star Wars Expanded Universe which can’t be damaged by heat or energy.
- Beskar (Mandalorian iron), a rare metal that only Mandalorian metalsmiths can forge.
- Phrik, a nearly indestructible metallic compound.
- Orbalisks, which are parasitic creatures that live in groups. Their armor is very difficult to pierce.
Lightsabers made from magnetically contained plasma
The first obvious question is, is magnetically contained plasma a thing? The answer is yes. Plasma is one of the four fundamental states of matter. It’s what happens when “an ionized gaseous substance becomes highly electrically conductive to the point that long-range electric and magnetic fields dominate the behavior of the matter.” What does that mean? It means plasma can be molded and shaped using magnetic forces. In fact, scientists use something called a Tokamak chamber to mold and shape plasma for nuclear-fusion research. The center of a Tokamak is a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber that uses heat and pressure to turn gaseous hydrogen fuel into plasma.
Does this mean you could have a light saber made of plasma? According to Dr. Christopher Baird, Assistant Professor of Physics at West Texas A&M University:
“Yes, you can create a sword-shaped shaft of glowing, high-energy plasma that is floating in the air without a tangible container, using strong magnetic fields. However, to create magnetic fields that are this strong and this fine-tuned, you would need large, bulky equipment that would not fit in the handle of a hand-held device.”
I guess if you don’t want to lug around a nuclear reactor to power your sword, it’s unlikely. For now a sword with a magnetically contained plasma shaft powered by a kyber crystal is not going to happen. However, if you do find some kyber crystals, let the rest of us know.
Lightsabers made of pure energy
This leads us to the other description that’s sometimes used to explain what a lightsaber is made of — pure energy. Dr. Baird explained that: “There’s no such thing as pure energy. Energy is a property of an object and not an object itself. Every object that has energy also has other properties as well. Therefore, you cannot build a shaft of pure energy because pure energy does not exist.”
Well that’s a bummer. So that leads us to the next question, what about light? A common misnomer is that light is pure energy, leading many people to suggest that lightsabers are made of some kind of light. Neil deGrasse Tyson says: “You can make a lightsaber that can cut through things but if it’s actually made of light, they would just pass through one another.” He got into a geek fight with another physicist, Brian Cox, who said a lightsaber might actually work. “There’s a process I’ve studied… gamma-gamma scattering we call it… a measured process at particle accelerators… so at very high energies, very high-energy collisions, there’s a probability that photons will kick off each other, bounce off each other,” Cox said. deGrasse Tyson agreed, saying you’d have to redo Star Wars so that “lightsabers are made of very high energy gamma ray beams. And then yeah, you can have a swordfight.” But, you might have some radiation related health issues later.
Another problem with a lightsaber made with light is that light can’t be contained. Aside from it not being solid, it would result in a weapon that’s got way too long a blade. Unless you wanted your somehow solid light beam sword to reach the stars and damage a bunch of innocent spaceships during battle.
Even though we can’t easily do a magnetically charged plasma blade that’s retractable, or a blade made of light, what other things have people come up with?
Real-world lightsabers today
Inspired by Star Wars, people have created all kinds of toy lightsabers. Most use a tube to contain LEDs or in some cases, lasers. Some make lightsaber noises whenever they hit something — as with the lightsabers from Electrum SaberCrafts. Others, like WickedLasers, offer a lightsaber that releases a laser beam so powerful, it comes with a safety code and requires safety goggles for safe operation. This lightsaber cuts through some materials, check out their video here.
Dr. Chris Baird also suggested a couple of designs that might be possible:
“Another form of plasma is a high-temperature flame. Therefore, you could also create a sword-shaped shaft of glowing plasma by burning a jet of fuel, thereby making a flame. This is basically a flame-thrower and perhaps not what you have in mind. However, there could be ways to control the jet of fuel so that it looks more like a light saber and less like an uncontrolled jet of flame. Also, heating up a rod of metal to very high temperatures can make it glow and cut through objects, and therefore look and act like a light saber.”
A wieldable flame-thrower sounds pretty cool to me, even if it’s not exactly a lightsaber. And the second idea is interesting too. It turns out both of these ideas were eventually prototyped by Hacksmith Industries. Over the course of four years, they built a prototype for each of these suggestions.
Protosabers are possible
Hacksmith Industries decided to do a protosaber rather than a lightsaber. Known in the Star Wars universe as an archaic lightsaber that required an external power pack to operate, the protosaber is a little more feasible as a real-world option.
Hacksmith Industries created a protosaber that uses a titanium blade with a ceramic insulated tungsten core. They built a battery pack that only weighs 34.5 lbs and creates 20kW of power, which is about half the power supply to an average North American home. The journey to building the protosaber as well as the outcome is chronicled in the World’s First ProtoSaber video below.
They’ve since continued to work on their design. Hacksmith Industries 4th version of their protosaber simplifies the battery pack. The battery pack is still bulky, and to duel requires a fire proof body suit and helmet, but it’s pretty amazing.
As of October 8th 2020, a plasma-based, retractable protosaber is possible
Hacksmith Industries finally succeeded in a protosaber design that’s retractable and plasma based. A big power pack is still required, but it’s created using fuel. This is as close as anyone has come to a real lightsaber. It burns at 4000 degrees Farenheit, can melt doors, and is super dangerous. HackSmith Industries uses a combination of propane and oxygen to form the blade, which can be colored using different salts. They designed a special switch that controls how much gas goes to the protosaber and forms the blade.