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The Pentagon continues to pour funding into Arizona-based laser plasma lightning blaster-gun firm Applied Energetics, formerly known as Ionatron. The US Army says that the firm's lightning guns are "approaching the level of maturity needed to begin weaponization".

The military assessment came as the US Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (ARDEC) inked a new $3.1m deal with Applied last week.

"Now that the technology is approaching the level of maturity needed to begin weaponization we will be more closely coordinated with Applied Energetics through this contract to fulfil Army mission needs," said Ben Lagasca, chief of "Advanced Energy Armaments" at ARDEC.

The technology in question is a fairly old idea: that of using a laser beam to create a plasma "tunnel" or "channel" through the atmosphere which would be more conductive than ordinary air. This would allow a powerful electric spark discharge - an artificial lightning bolt - to be directed onto a target with some precision.

Arizona firm Ionatron began work on this plan in 2002. Originally the company thought that it would soon develop lightning blasters so portable and powerful that they would supersede conventional small arms. Any desired electric intensity from lethal force down to circuitry-disabling-but-harmless-to-people could be selected on one's battery-powered electric blaster pistol. There would also be a wireless-Taser stun option in between.

Initially, however, the firm attempted to deploy its zappers as a bomb-disposal tool on robotic vehicles for use in Iraq. This ended in ignominious failure during 2006, and Ionatron stock fell off a cliff. The firm renamed itself, but nonetheless faced huge shareholder anger and earlier this month was forced to cough up $6.5m to settle a class-action lawsuit.

Still, normally the firm's continued military research contracts would offer some confidence that at least some kind of electric bomb-zapper is in fact on the horizon - if not a proper sci-fi raygun.

But colossal amounts of cash have been targeted by the US forces at finding a technical fix for the insurgent bombs which have been such a deadly scourge overseas. That money has to be spent - perhaps regardless of how promising any given project may genuinely appear to be. ®

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