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Scientists slam US plasma weapon

Pulsed Energy Projectile 'torture' rumpus

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Scientists have reacted angrily to the revelation that the US military is funding development of a weapon intended to deliver an "excrutiating bout of pain" from over a mile away. The "Pulsed Energy Projectile" (PEP) device "fires a laser pulse that generates a burst of expanding plasma when it hits something solid", the New Scientist explains. If you happen to be that something solid, then you get temporarily incapacitated without suffering permanent injury.

That's the theory, but pain reasearchers fear that the proposed riot control weapon could be used for torture, and further doubt a solid ethical basis for the research. Andrew Rice, a consultant in pain medicine at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, said: "Even if the use of temporary severe pain can be justified as a restraining measure, which I do not believe it can, the long-term physical and psychological effects are unknown."

What those physical effects might be is the subject of a University of Central Florida in Orlando study which aims to "optimise" the effect of PEPs as noted in a 2003 US Naval Studies Board review of non-lethal weapons. The review outlined how PEPs produced "pain and temporary paralysis" in animal tests, apparently as a result of "an electromagnetic pulse produced by the expanding plasma which triggers impulses in nerve cells".

The new study was exposed by biological weapons research watchdog the Sunshine Project, which obtained papers relating to the programme under the US's Freedom of Information Act. One research contract between the Office of Naval Research and the University of Florida in Gainsville is snappily entitled: "Sensory consequences of electromagnetic pulses emitted by laser induced plasmas".

New Scientist notes that the contract was heavily censored before release, but reveals that researchers are requested to investigate "optimal pulse parameters to evoke peak nociceptor activation", ie, how to cause the maximum pain possible without killing the subject.

One scientist working on the project - Martin Richardson, a laser expert at the University of Central Florida - declined to comment to New Scientist. Another - Brian Cooper, an expert in dental pain at the University of Florida - attempted to downplay his involvement by saying: "I don't have anything interesting to convey. I was just providing some background for the group."

According to John Wood of University College London, an expert in how the brain perceives pain, both Richardson and Cooper and all those working on the PEP research project should face censure because any weapon resulting from the programme "could be used for torture".

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