The Biology of Dragonfire

In a recent post, I decided that plasma-temperature dragonfire might be feasible, from a physics standpoint. There’s one catch: my solution required antimatter (and quite a bit of it). Antimatter does occur naturally in the human body, though. An average human being contains about 140 milligrams of potassium, which we need to run important stuff like nerves and heart muscle. The most common isotope of potassium is the stable potassium-39, with a few percent potassium-41 (also stable), and a trace of potassium-40, which is radioactive. (It’s the reason you always hear people talking about radioactive bananas. It also means that oranges, potatoes, and soybeans are radioactive. And cream of tartar is the most radioactive thing in your kitchen, unless you’ve got a smoke detector in there.)

Potassium-40 almost always decays by emitting a beta particle (transforming itself into calcium-40) or by cannibalizing one of its own electrons (producing argon-40). But about one time in 100,000, one of its protons will transform into a neutron, releasing a positron (the antimatter counterpart to the electron) and an electron neutrino. The positron probably won’t make it more than a few atoms before it attracts a stray electron and annihilates, producing a gamma ray. But that doesn’t matter, for our purposes. What matters is that there are natural sources of antimatter.

Unfortunately, potassium-40 is about the worst antimatter source there is. For one thing, its half-life is over a billion years, meaning it doesn’t produce much radiation. And, like I said, of that radiation, only 0.001% is in the form of usable positrons.

Luckily, modern medicine gives us another option. Nuclear medicine, specifically (which, by the way, is just about the coolest name for a profession). As you may have noticed by the fact that you don’t vomit profusely every time you go outside, human beings are opaque. We can shoot radiation or sound waves through them to see what their insides look like, but that usually only gives us still pictures, and it doesn’t tell us, for instance, which organs are consuming a lot of blood, and therefore might contain tumors. For that, we use positron-emission tomography (PET) scanners. In PET, an ordinary molecule (like glucose) is treated so that it contains a positron-emitting atom (most often fluorine-18, in the case of glucose). The positron annihilates with an electron, and very fancy cameras pick up the two resulting gamma rays. By measuring the angles of these gamma rays and their timing, the machine can decide if they’re just stray gamma rays or if they, in fact, emerged from the annihilation of a positron. Science is cool, innit?

One of the other nucleides used in PET scanning is carbon-11. Carbon-11 is just about perfect, as far as biological sources of antimatter go. It’s carbon, which the body is used to dealing with. It decays almost exclusively by positron emission. It decays into boron, which isn’t a problem for the body. And its half-life is only 20 minutes, which means it’ll produce antimatter quickly.

There’s one major catch, though. Whereas potassium-40 occurs in nature, carbon-11 is artificial, produced by bombarding boron atoms with 5-MeV protons from a particle accelerator. I may, however, have found a way around this. To explain, here’s a picture of a dragon:

Whole Dragon

No, those aren’t labels for weird cuts of meat. They’re to explain the pictures that follow.

Living things contain a lot of free protons. They’re the major driver of the awesome mechanical protein ATP synthase, which looks like this:

(The Protein DataBank is awesome!)

Sorry. I just really like the way PDB renders its proteins.

Either way, we know organisms can produce concentrations of protons. But in order to accelerate a proton, you need a powerful electric field. The first particle accelerators were built around van de Graaff generators, which can reach millions of volts. Somehow, I doubt a living creature can generate a megavolt.

Actually, you might be surprised. The electric eel (and the other electric fish I’m annoyed my teachers never told me about) produces is prey-stunning shock using cells called electroctyes. These are disk-shaped cells that act a little bit like capacitors. They charge up individually by accumulating concentrations of positive ions, and then they discharge simultaneously. The ions only move a little bit, but there are a lot of ions moving at the same time, which produces a fairly powerful electric current that generates a field that stuns prey. The fact that organisms can produce potential differences large enough to do this makes me hopeful that maybe, just maybe, a dragon could do the same on a nanometer scale, producing small regions of megavolt or gigavolt potential that could accelerate protons to the energies needed to turn boron-bearing molecules into carbon-11-bearing molecules. Here’s how that might work:


There’s going to have to be a specialized system for containing the carbon-11 molecules, transporting them rapidly, and shielding the rest of the body from the positrons that inevitably get loose during transport, but if nature can invent things like electric eels and bacteria with built-in magnetic nano-compasses, I don’t think that’s too big a stretch.

The production of carbon-11 is going to have to happen as-needed, because it’s too radioactive to just keep around. I imagine it’d be part of the dragon’s fight-or-flight reflex. Here’s how I imagine the carbon-11 molecules will be stored:

Storage Zone

Note the immediate proximity to a transport duct: when you’ve got a living creature full of radioactive carbon, you want to be able to get that carbon out as soon as you can. Also note the radiation shielding around the nucleus. That would, I imagine, consist of iron nanoparticles. There might also be iron nanoparticles throughout the cytoplasm, to prevent the gamma rays from lost positrons from doing too much tissue damage.

Those positrons are going to have to be stored in bulk once they’re produced, though. This problem is the hardest to solve, and frankly, I feel like my own solution is pretty handwave-y. Nonetheless, here’s what I came up with: a biological Penning trap:

Usage Zone

These cells are going to require a lot of brand-new biological machinery: some sort of bio-electromagnet, for one (in order to produce the magnetic component of the Penning trap). For another, cells that can sustain a high electric field indefinitely (for the electric component). Cells that can present positron-producing carbon-11 atoms while simultaneously maintaining a leak-proof capsule and a high vacuum in which to store the positrons. And cells that can concentrate high-mass atoms like lead, because there’s no way to keep all the positrons contained. That’s probably wishful thinking, but hey, nature invented the bombardier beetle and the cordyceps zombie-ant fungus, so maybe it’s not too out there.

The process of actually producing the dragonfire is very simple, by comparison. The dragon vomits water rich in iron or calcium salts (or maybe just vomits blood). The little storage capsules open at the same time, making gaps in their fields that let the positrons stream out. The positrons annihilate with electrons in the fluid (hopefully not too close to the dragon’s own cells; this is another stretch in credibility). The gamma rays produced by the annihilation are scattered and absorbed by the water and the heavy elements in it, and by the time they exit the mouth, they’re on their way to plasma temperatures.

This is not, of course, the kind of thing nature tends to do. Evolution is a lazy process. It doesn’t find the best solution overall (because if you wanna talk about dominant strategies, having a built-in particle accelerator is up there with built-in lasers). It just finds the solution that’s better enough than the competitor’s solution to give the critter in question an advantage. So, although nature has jumped the hurdles to create bacteria that can survive radiation thousands of times the dose that kills a human on the spot, and weird things like bombardier beetles, insect-mind-controlling hairworms, and parasites that make snails’ eyestalks look like caterpillars so birds will eat them and spread the parasites, the leap to antimatter storage is probably asking a bit too much, unless we’re talking about some extremely specific evolutionary pressures.

Which is not to say that nature couldn’t produce something almost as awesome as plasma-temperature dragonfire. Let’s return once again to the bombardier beetle. The bombardier beetle has glands that produce a soup of hydrogen peroxide and quinones. Hydrogen peroxide likes to decompose into water and oxygen, which releases a fair bit of heat (which is why it was used as a monopropellant in early spacecraft thrusters). But at the beetle’s body temperature, the decomposition is too slow to matter. When threatened, however, the beetle pumps the dangerous soup into a chamber lined with peroxide-decomposing catalysts, which makes the reaction happen explosively, spraying the predator with a foul mix of steam, hot water, and irritating quinone derivatives. Here’s what that looks like:

So if nature can evolve something like that, is it too much of a stretch to imagine a dragon producing hydrogen-peroxide-laden fluid, mixing it with hydrogen gas, and vomiting it through a special orifice along with some catalyst that ignites the mixture into a superheated steam blowtorch like the end of a rocket nozzle? Well, look at that beetle! Maybe it’s not as far-fetched as it seems…


16 thoughts on “The Biology of Dragonfire

  1. Very cool! It’s always been a puzzle as to how dragons might breathe fire – I’ve seen stories in which someone managed to kill the dragon by throwing a bucket of water down its throat and causing a boiler explosion, but that didn’t really seem convincing (insofar, of course, as ANYTHING about dragons is convincing, ahem…). In context of medieval literature they were very much the ‘ultimate test’ for any hero, so it seems right to reconstruct them, as you have, in ways that present the ‘ultimate test’ relative to how we understand physics today!

    • And hey–speaking of the dragons of legend, if you believe Beowulf, we know dragonfire has to be at least 1811 Kelvin, since it can apparently melt an iron shield.

      Okay. That’s enough coffee for me…

  2. Pingback: The Biology of Dragonfire | richarddalzielblog403

  3. Also note the radiation shielding around the nucleus. That would, I imagine, consist of iron nanoparticles.” – Dragons might have used the armor and weapons from all those brave knights as a source for this iron. Come to think of it, gold might also work as a shielding of sorts; and fire-breathing dragons were known for trying to hoard as much gold as they could.

    I really like this post 🙂

    • That’s an excellent point: after all, gold is a dense, high-Z element with a pretty big nucleus. Plus, biologically, it’s relatively inert. Or, the particles could be lead metabolized from pewter and all the other weird metal alloys people used to make.

  4. Pingback: Science and religion | Upon Raven Wings

    • I see what you mean now.

      There’d be no reason for an underwater dragon to produce fire: the pressure underwater increases by (roughly) one atmosphere for every thirty meters of depth, which would make it almost impossible to expel the fire except very near the surface. Plus, water is infamous for draining heat out of a system. If the dragon were aquatic, it would make more sense for it to produce some sort of bio-laser which would have a better range underwater. Actually, there’s an idea for another post…

      • Omar says:

        Pressure increases by one atmosphere every 10 meters of depth, irrelevant to the post I know, but as a diver I felt the urge to correct that lol. Excellent video by the way. If you have to time check out my blog http://naturalphilosophy.co

  5. Pingback: Dragon Metabolism | Sublime Curiosity

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