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The Pentagon Recruits Jedi Medics With Lightsaber-Like Plasma Knives


The military has a new recruitment tool, and I’m not talking about the bad economy — though it has helped boost troop levels. I’m talking about a lightsaber-like device that could bring Star Wars fanboys into the fold. Forget about a signing bonus. How about a chance to use a special issue plasma knife that effortlessly cuts through flesh with a “blade” of glowing ionized gas?

According to a Pentagon budget document, Special Operations Command recently “completed ongoing testing and field evaluation studies” of a “wearable low-power plasma knife” which, in description, sounds like a little lightsaber. But before you sign up to fight like a Jedi Knight, read on. The device wasn’t tested as an “elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” It’s a medical device meant to treat injured soldiers on the front lines, more akin in application to Star Trek tech.

Intended for use by Special Operations Forces that are stuck behind enemy lines or far from an emergency care facility, the portable plasma knife could be the difference between life and death. Sure, it could slice open a Tauntaun so a fellow fighter doesn’t freeze to death, but given the climate and wildlife in Afghanistan, that’s probably not what the military has in mind. More likely, it would be used to quickly cauterize a wound so a commando wouldn’t bleed to death waiting for treatment. If you’re losing blood in a remote
mountain range, may the Special Forces be with you!

“It’s like a very small blowtorch, only instead of burning gas, it’s electrically heated gas,” explains Wired writer David Hambling. “The gas is heated up to a temperature where it becomes a plasma. It’s ionized so you get this stream of glowing gas coming out of it and it can be used as a knife.”

Cauterization isn’t ideal under any circumstances (you’re melting the flesh to form a bandage) but it beats death and using a plasma knife to do it sounds far better than these other movie methods. It’s precise, sterile and able to work without burning away more flesh or making the injury deeper. You wouldn’t know it by looking at Luke’s stump in The Empire Strikes Back, but when skin is cauterized there are two layers of dead flesh involved.

“The top layer ends up sort of crispy and crunchy and blackened. And then below that, there’s actually a layer which is just like partially melted flesh, and that’s what actually stops the bleeding,” says Hambling. “The advantage with the Plasma Knife is that the whole gas can get through the crispy, crunchy layer, and get to the flesh and apply the heat where it’s most needed.”

So in a way, Darth Vader saved his son’s life when he sliced off his hand using a lightsaber. Luke was right: There is some good in him.

Naturally, the budget document raises more questions than it answers: What color is the blade? Does it hum? Would Vader have made a good medic? Regardless, it’s nice to see the military focusing on the healing side of scifi. And, Hambling adds, “if they like it enough, I’m sure someone might seriously consider adding that to their arsenal of tools.”

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