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Lightning-zapgun maker gets more US gov cash

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A US company developing laser-enhanced electric plasma lightning blaster cannons says it has received further funding from the US military. Applied Energetics (the company formerly known as Ionatron) announced today that it had landed a $4.5m contract to advance its Laser Guided Energy technology (LGE).

“We thank the Army for their efforts and assistance in moving this program forward," said Dana Marshall of Applied. "This contract... will bring us to the follow-on phases of demonstration system engineering.”

The idea of LGE blaster weapons has been around for a while, but as yet nobody has got it to work. The plan is essentially to release a bolt of directed lightning at a target, in much the same way that electric sparks can be made to jump across short distances between two contacts. The spark is hugely more controllable and long ranging with LGE - or so goes the thinking - because a precursor laser beam has burned a "tunnel" through the air, turning it into a conductive plasma that carries current far better than normal atmosphere.

Applied/Ionatron have previously suggested that their lightning-beam blasters would make firearms obsolete. There would be non-lethal settings, where the zap-guns would essentially act as wireless versions of current Taser cattleprod-flinger electrocution weapons. Users would also be able to switch from "stun", "paralyse", "jitterbug", "noisy gadget fry" etc to a lethal setting.

Nowadays, however, the firm has backpedalled on the electro-phaser handgun notion, and merely hopes to use the tech for dealing with roadside bombs and so forth in Iraq. It says that LGE would offer "neutralisation" from a "safe standoff distance".

Most terrorist/insurgent bombs being electrically triggered, this neutralisation would presumably be achieved by detonating the bomb. This can actually done remotely already, using a variety of modified conventional weapons. Nonetheless, it would seem that the US forces see some useful potential in LGE - or at any rate, they have so much money targeted at mitigating roadside bombs that they're desperate for things to spend it on.

A previous 2006 attempt to field bomb-zappers on robot vehicles ended in ignominious failure, and the Ionatron stock tanked. The management of the renamed Applied Energetics now face a shareholder lawsuit alleging that they knew all along that the kit wasn't ready for field use, but failed to disclose this so as to make large personal gains on inflated stock in the run-up to failed military tests. ®

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