Industrial Light and ... Magic?

Darth Vader holding a lightsaber.

Nov 03, 2017

Though it’s supposed to happen in a galaxy far, far away, some of the technology in Star Wars may become a reality sooner than George Lucas thought. Lightsabers, the glowing sword-like weapons used in the films, might be coming to a galaxy near you. The lightsabers of the future would be very different from the plastic light-up toys that are sold at stores and costume shops. According to Don Lincoln, a senior scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame, they have more in common with their film origins as dangerous, glowing combat weapons. In his analysis, Lincoln uses his Yoda-esque knowledge to conclude that such a technology could be created through a combination of what currently exists and what science is now investigating.

To start, lightsabers have some essential qualities: they glow, end at a fixed point, generate an incredible amount of heat, can deflect off one another, and retract and extend. However, lightsabers are literally more than meets the eye. A common misconception about lightsaber technology is that it uses lasers. In actuality, the lasers required for a lightsaber (high powered with short wavelengths) would be invisible and have no fixed length. Lincoln surmises that the present technology that could be used to create a working lightsaber is plasma. As the fourth state of matter, plasma is formed through ionization, stripping electrons from gas atoms. This process creates a glow - one that can be observed daily in neon and fluorescent lights found in every shop, bar, or cantina in Mos Eisley.   

Lightsabers are also able to cut through metal, Jedi, and Sith, which means that they generate a significant amount of heat. Luckily, it looks like plasma technology can provide this as well. Plasma is electrically conductive which means the electrical current it transmits could heat up and melt the material it touches. Plasma torches and cutters use the flowing material they create to allow electrical currents to go through them. This technology generates enough heat to cut through and melt the material, but it requires a significant power source. Since plasma is electrically conductive, these tools usually need a conductive material in order to cut - which poses some serious limits for a Jedi in training trying to cut through rubber, paper, plastic, or foam. However, science has also solved this issue through the invention of twin plasma torches. These would allow an apprentice (or padawan) to cut through a non-conductive material as well. 

The plasma would also have to be contained since it acts more like a fire than the concentrated laser-like beam that Luke Skywalker wields. The heat generated from the plasma would be too great to be confined in metal or plastic. Also, it would be a far cry from the recognizable beam that movie audiences know. For both practical and aesthetic purposes, the plasma would need to be invisibly enclosed. To accomplish this, Lincoln argues that advancements in nuclear fusion could hold the answer. Because fusion plasma is so hot, it cannot be contained through conventional methods. Instead, magnetic fields would be needed to manipulate and control the charged particles within the plasma. Manipulate and control? Maybe The Force was just another name for magnetic fields.

The result is now an extremely hot, dense, glowing plasma blade that can be wielded - but can it be used in combat? Unfortunately, no. In the movies, when one lightsaber blade meets another they hit and deflect, allowing the combatants to strike back. With pure plasma, the blades would pass through one another - which would make for some rather uninteresting and anti-climactic battles. What would be needed is a strong core for the sabers to make up the blade, one that could withstand the high temperatures of the plasma. Lincoln believes this core could be made of a ceramic material - which would not have any of its properties affected by the high heat.

The ceramic core then leads to the final lightsaber hurdle and certainly the one with the most flair: the extension and retraction of the blade. The ceramic core blade is much longer than the hilt it would come out of, so it would have to be malleable enough to expand when in use and then shrink when in the hilt - a quality that has not yet been found for the material. If such a material existed or is created - one that could change its shape and withstand high plasma heat - lightsabers could very well be around the corner, albeit for a ton of Imperial Credits and safety permits.

The lightsaber is still just out of reach. Current science has not caught up to George Lucas’ vision just yet, but thanks to minds like Don Lincoln's, the roadmap has been drawn: a strong power source that can fit into a hilt, a flexible ceramic core, and magnetic field technology that can contain plasma. Perhaps there is an engineer with a strong command of The Force and the scientific know-how who could bring this technology to our galaxy. If anyone should take up this pursuit, they would do well to heed these wise words: “Do or do not, there is no try.”


Image source: Stefano Buttafoco /