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New gizmo means working electropulse rayguns at last

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American boffins say they have developed a new and more powerful magnetron - a device used to produce microwaves - and that the day of the long-awaited, circuitry-frying electropulse raygun may as a result finally be at hand.

The magnetron has actually been around since before World War II. It's a vital component in radars and, latterly, microwave ovens. Military boffins have long hoped to produce even more puissant High Power Microwave (HPM) generators, able to release super-powerful rays able to cripple or destroy electronic circuitry in the same way as the electromagnetic pulse emitted by a nuclear bomb.

Thus far the search for the HPM pulse-blaster has proved fruitless; but now a US military-funded engineering lab says it has developed a new method of supercharging relativistic magnetrons using "μ-metal" (aka Mu-metal, an alloy of nickel, iron, copper and molybdenum which is very magnetically permeable).

"This invention should make it possible to develop more compact magnetrons that operate at higher power and higher frequencies," says Dr Ron Gilgenbach, chief of the Plasma, Pulsed Power and Microwave lab at Michigan Uni. "Higher power magnetrons could be utilized to jam and defeat enemy electronics."

HPM weapons are being pursued by the military mainly for their effects on electronics. It's thought that enemy air defences, communications and so forth might be knocked out by microwave pulse strikes without the need for messy conventional bombing or missiling. The US forces plan to deploy the e-blaster units using unmanned cruise-missile/robocraft, at least initially, owing to the likelihood of the carrying platform being knackered by its own weapon.

However, many other applications have been envisaged for electropulse weaponry. Such kit - generally notional - has been touted for the purpose of defence against rebellious robots, or for zapping engine electronics in criminals' getaway cars during high-speed pursuits. There are those in the States who consider pulse attacks of various kinds to be a likely terrorist strategy, capable of knocking wired-up America back into the 19th century.

Various US government agencies have also sought to deploy microwave rayguns as "less lethal" options against humans, as for example in the truck mounted "pain ray" Active Denial System riot-roaster weapon. Another example is the Justice Department microwave rifle.

Presumably all these efforts will become significantly enhanced once the new superpowered magnetrons come in. And microwave ovens will become able to pop your popcorn or heat up your frozen Hungry Hombre ranch-style jumbo meal-slab feast module in seconds rather than interminable minutes. ®

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