This week, Don Lincoln, a senior scientist at Fermilab, offered hope to die-hard Star Wars fans everywhere: while we don’t have the technology to create one now, he writes in an article for Space.com, there is some real science behind the lightsaber. And the way it would work isn’t exactly what most movie-goers would expect.
So what tech could create a 4 foot long, glowing blade hot enough to cut through steel blast doors? The answer does not, as one might expect, involve lasers — Lincoln points out that not only do lasers not have a fixed length, but unless particles in the air scatter the light, the beam itself is actually invisible.
Instead, Lincoln points to plasma as a potential source for the lightsaber’s trademark glow and unique abilities. Most of us have encountered plasma in our everyday lives already — it’s the source of light used in fluorescent tubes and neon lights. Plasma torches already exist that harness the high voltage of ionized gas to cut through conductive materials. However, since these technologies are based on ultra-heated gas, there would have to be some kind of magnetic field in place to contain the plasma and form it into the shape of a lightsaber blade.
Here’s where things take a sharp turn from how lightsabers are depicted in the movies. Lincoln writes, “If we had two magnetically contained tubes of plasma, they’d pass right through one another … so no epic lightsaber duels. For that, we need to figure out a way to make a solid core for the sabers.” In the article, he proposes that a lightweight ceramic core, which could be heated to extremely high temperatures without melting, would spring out of the hilt in a way similar to the plastic blades used in toy lightsabers now. Anyone who’s used one of these toys can attest that they’re not exactly as graceful or elegant as the weapons used in the movies.
That solves most of the question of how a real-life lightsaber might work, but there are a couple more obstacles that aren’t as easily solved: first, the heat given off by such a powerful plasma beam would be so intense it would scorch the hands of anyone using it. Second, superheated plasma would take an incredible amount of energy to run — Lincoln estimates the amount of power used in one short sequence from the prequels could power 14,000 average American houses. Obviously, no battery exists that could supply that much power, and if it did, it certainly wouldn’t fit into the hilt of a lightsaber.
So, does the science support the possible existence of real life lightsabers? Sort of. Some of the technology needed doesn’t yet exist, but a potential mechanism can be explained. Is it likely we’ll see technology based on the concept anytime soon? Probably not.