What is an Electrolaser?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

An electrolaser is a hybrid optical/electrical directed-energy weapon. It functions by ionizing a corridor of air using laser-induced blooming, then sending an electric current at a target through the conductive channel. This is similar to the way that a lightning discharge works.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

At least two defense contracting companies have created handheld electrolaser weapons — Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems of Anderson, Indiana, and Ionatron of Tucson, Arizona. Ionatron markets their proprietary Laser-Induced Plasma Channel (LIPC) technology as "man-made lightning" and wants it to "replace guns as the weapon of choice in close-range defense". An electrolaser may be lethal or non-lethal depending on the voltage used.

Normally, blooming is the bane of laser defense technology - at power densities over about a megajoule per square centimeter, a laser strips electrons from the nuclei of air molecules, creating a plasma and redirecting energy away from the main beam. A number of strategies have been devised in attempts to work around this, including the use of large mirrors to project a focus on the target or laser pulses so short that blooming doesn't have time to occur. The electrolaser is the only directed-energy weapon that takes advantage of blooming rather than working against it.

The plasma region created by laser-induced blooming can be made highly conductive if enough electrons are knocked free from their atomic orbits. This provides the perfect conduit to run a current through to a target at moderate range. Using step-up transformers, an electrolaser system creates a high-voltage, low-amperage alternating current to feed into the plasma corridor. To create a complete circuit, there must be a way to make the current loop back around, which can be done through either an auxiliary laser beam or a sufficiently powerful ground current. Depending on its size and application, an electrolaser weapon may use a electromotive force somewhere between a thousand and a billion volts.

The electrolaser is one of several directed-energy weapons that certain military leaders and scientists have stated will be the inevitable next step in warfare. Electrolaser technology would be particularly useful for disabling electronics without the need to fire a shot. Pacifists hope that the non-lethal nature of some electrolaser systems will minimize casualties in conflicts of the future.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


There are basically two types of damage: laser damage and electric damage, hence the name electrolaser. To protect yourself from it you need two things: a mirror and an electrical insulator.


What it would take to protect you depends on the power of the weapon. These handheld weapons should be relatively weak, while the ship-mounted designs that have been in development over the years could easily vaporize tanks, destroy buildings, etc.

To protect against a big one, you'd need something massive that could absorb more energy than the electrolaser could dish out, faster than it could dish it out. Anything less would result in electrocution or incineration. From the demos of medium-sized electrolasers I've seen, metal has a tendency to liquefy on contact and not conduct much of the electricity away.


Depends a great deal on voltage and duration. 16 Joules is all it takes to kill via electrocution, which is only about maybe 500 uF at 300v. Don't know coulumbs. In amps, ~150mA through the heart does it.


Insulation like rubber or plastic may help you. A more sure-fire method would be to surround yourself with metal. Yes I know this sounds crazy but it works- metal has a much lower resistance so the current would flow around you to ground (or the axillary laser beam)- it's called a Faraday cage. Magnetic fields are also good. The shielding depends to a large extent on the settings of the weapon. Does anyone know how long this would take to kill you?


How can a person protect themselves from getting shocked by an electrolaser? What type of insulating material would be required?


Can an electrolaser physically damage buildings etc (such as by exerting a force on them), or can it only deliver voltage?

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