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The Physics of Dragonfire

Last year, I wrote a post about the physics of the plasma-temperature dragonfire from Dwarf Fortress. Today, because my frontal lobes are screwed on backwards, I wanna work out whether or not biology could produce a plume of 20,000-Kelvin plasma without stretching credibility too far. I have a hunch that the answer will be disappointing, but my hunches are usually wrong. Must be those faulty frontal lobes.

The first thing we need to work out is how much power we’re going to need to heat all that air. Let’s say dragonfire comes out of the dragon’s mouth at 50 meters per second (111 mph, about as fast as a sneeze or a weak tornado). As a rough approximation, let’s assume that a dragon’s mouth has a cross-sectional area of about 0.0600 square meters (about the area of a piece of ordinary printer paper). This is one of those nice situations where we can just multiply our two numbers together and get what we’re looking for: a flow rate of 3.120 cubic meters per second.

So here’s what we know so far: we’ve got a dragon breathing 3.120 cubic meters of air every second. That air has to be heated from 300 Kelvin (roughly room temperature) to 20,000 Kelvin. The specific heat capacity of air is close to 1,020 Joules per kilogram Kelvin over a pretty wide range of temperatures, so we’ll assume that holds even when the air turns to plasma. That means that every second, our dragon has to put out 79.96 million Joules, or 22.2 kilowatt-hours. But we’re not talking about hours here. We’re talking per second. That’s 79.96 megawatts, which is almost twice the power produced by the GE CF6-5 jet engines that power many airliners. That’s a lot of power.

But, much to my surprise, there are some fuels that can deliver that kind of power. Compressed hydrogen burning in pure oxygen could do it. Except I’m basing that assumption entirely on the power required. There’s a lot more physics involved than that. The highest temperature that a combustion reaction can reach, assuming no heat loss, is called the adiabatic flame temperature, and although this is an impressive 3,500 Kelvin for a well-mixed oxy-hydrogen flame, that’s nowhere near the 20,000 Kelvin we need. The only fuels with higher energy densities than hydrogen are things like plutonium and antimatter, and for once, I’m going to be restrained and try not to resort to antimatter if I don’t have to. Let’s see if there’s another way to do it.

In my previous post on dragonfire, I described Dwar Fortress’s dragon’s-breath as a medieval welding arc. So to hell with it–why not use an actual welding arc to heat the air? Well, it turns out that something like this already exists. It’s called an arcjet. Like VASIMR, it’s one of those electric-thruster technologies that has yet to get its day in the spotlight. But arcjets have found another purpose in life: allowing space agencies to test their reentry heat shields on the ground. Here’s a strangely satisfying video of one such arcjet heater being tested on an ordinary metal bolt:

That certainly looks like how my brain tells me dragonfire should look, but from a little research, it seems that the Johnson Space Center’s arcjet only puts out something like 2 megawatts, thirty-five times less than the 79 we need. According to these people, the arc in an arcjet thruster can reach the 20,000 Kelvin we need, but it seems pretty likely that the actual plume temperature is going to be a lot lower.

And besides, our dragon’s powerplant has to be (relatively) biology-friendly, since it has to be inside a living creature. The voltages and currents needed to run an arcjet would probably make our dragon drop dead or explode or both.

So, as much as I hate to do it (I’m kidding; I love to do this) I’ve gotta turn to antimatter.

Antimatter is the ultimate in fuel efficiency. Because almost all of the universe is made of matter (and nobody really knows why), if you release antimatter into the world, it’ll very quickly find its matching non-anti-particle and annihilate, producing gamma rays, neutrinos, and weird particles like kaons. The simplest case is when an electron meets a positron (its antiparticle). The result is (almost) always two gamma rays with an energy of 511 keV, meaning a wavelength of 2.4 picometers, which is right on the border between really high-energy X-rays and really low-energy gamma rays.

This presents yet another problem: hard x-rays and soft gamma rays are penetrating radiation. They pass through air about as well as bullets pass through water (which isn’t an amazing distance, I’ll admit, but I’m still not about to sit in a pool and let someone shoot at me). At 511 keV and ordinary atmospheric density, the mass attenuation coefficient (which tells you what fraction of the radiation in question gets absorbed after traveling a certain distance) is in the neighborhood of 0.013 per meter, which means a beam of 511 keV photons will get 1.3% weaker for every meter it travels.

Working out just what fraction of these photons need to be absorbed is a bit beyond me. If the radiation has to be 1,000 times weaker, it’ll have to pass through 1.6 meters of air. That sounds to me like it’d be enough to burn our dragon’s tongue right off. And indeed, if we run the equation a different way, we see that, after traveling through 30 centimeters (about a foot) of air, the gamma rays will still have 25% of their original strength. I’m trying very hard not to imagine what burning dragon teeth would smell like.

But there’s no reason our dragon has to be making its death-dealing plasma out of air. Water is the most common molecule in biology, so why not use that instead? A 511 keV photon can still travel over 10 centimeters in water, but that’s a heck of a lot better than the 150 centimeters we were looking at before.

Of course, we can add a dash of metal atoms to the mix to absorb more of the x-rays and protect our poor dragon from its own flame. The heaviest metal found in organisms in large quantities is iron, usually in the form of hemoglobin. So let’s just throw some hemoglobin in that water, handwave away how the dragon is producing so many positrons, and call this experiment a success.

Well, it’s not a total success, since what I just described is essentially a dragon vomiting a jet of blood and then turning that into scalding-hot plasma. No wonder everybody’s scared of dragons…

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Dragonfire

So, I’ve been playing a lot of Dwarf Fortress lately (which goes a long way to explain the lack of new posts). If you don’t know, Dwarf Fortress is a bizarre and ridiculously detailed fantasy game where you send a squad of dwarves into the wilderness to dig for gems and ore and try to stay alive as long as possible. That’s harder than you might think, since all dwarves are born alcoholics who must have booze to function properly, they’re surrounded by horrible creatures that want them dead, the environment is harsh, and they’re…well, they’re a little dim.

I love Dwarf Fortress. I love it because the creators have put such an insane level of love and detail into it. For example, how many other fantasy games do you know where they actually use the specific heat of copper when calculating whether or not your armor is melting?

But one detail in particular caught my eye: Dwarf Fortress’s temperature system. Temperatures in Dwarf Fortress are, to quote the Wiki, “stored as sixteen-bit unsigned integers,” which means temperatures between 0 and 65,535. The cool thing is that Dwarf Fortress doesn’t use some wimpy unspecified temperature scale. There is a direct correspondence between Dwarf Fortress temperatures (measured in degrees Urist. Don’t ask.) and real temperatures. To convert from Dwarf Fortress temperatures to Kelvins, for instance, just do a little simple math: [Temperature in Kelvins] = ([Temperature in degrees Urist] – 9508.33) * (5/9) . As it turns out, the Urist scale is just the Fahrenheit scale shifted downward by 9968 degrees (which, incidentally, means you can go several thousand degrees below aboslute zero, but that’s an issue for another time).

Better yet, Dwarf Fortress has DRAGONS! I love dragons, far more than any twenty-six-year-old adult male probably should. I turn into a hyperactive eight-year-old boy when I think about dragons. And Dwarf Fortress combines two of my great loves: dragons, and being unnecessarily specific about things. Here’s a typical encounter between a human swordsman in bronze armor (the @ symbol; the graphics take some getting used to) and an angry dragon (the D symbol).

Dragon Fight 1

Round 1. FIGHT!

Dragon Fight 2

The dragon breathes fire. The human’s chainmail pants are now filled with poo.

Dragon Fight 3

The human is engulfed in dragonfire and begins burning almost immediately.

Dragon Fight Aftermath

To nobody’s surprise, the dragon wins. I’d also like to note that this dragon is a real jerk: while his poor prey was burning to death, it swooped in and knocked the human’s teeth out…

Dragon fights in Dwarf Fortress end very quickly. That’s because, as the wiki tells us, dragonfire has a temperature of 50,000 degrees Urist. Which translates to a horrifying 22,495.372 Kelvins (22,222.222 ºC, 40,032 ºF). That’s higher than the boiling point of lead. It’s higher than the boiling point of iron. It’s higher than the boiling point of tungsten, for crying out loud. In fact, it’s sixteen thousand degrees hotter than tungsten’s boiling point. Dwarf Fortress dragons don’t breathe fire like those wimpy Hollywood dragons. They breathe jets of freakin’ plasma. Plasma hotter than the surface of the sun. Plasma almost as hot as a lightning bolt.

With this in mind, we can take a scientific (and somewhat gruesome) look at what happened to our unfortunate human swordsman just now.

From the images above, let’s say the dragon’s plasma jet reached a maximum length of 10 meters before the dragon stopped spitting. Just before it struck our adventurer, it was spread out in a rough cone 10 meters long and 5 meters wide at the base. It was broiling away at a temperature of 22,500 Kelvin. When you’re working with absurd temperatures like this, the radiated heat and light do as much or more damage than the plasma itself. This kind of thing (unfortunately) also happens in more mundane circumstances: when high-voltage, high-current equipment shorts out, it can produce an arc flash, an electric discharge that produces a dangerous explosion, a deadly flash, a flare of plasma, and a shower of molten metal.

Arc flashes are horrifying. They’re a serious source of danger to electrical engineers. They’re also not terribly funny. But they give us an idea of the effects of dragonfire.

At a temperature of 22,500 Kelvin, the front surface of the fireball would radiate about 0.285 terawatts of energy. The formula for a blackbody spectrum tells us that the fireball will be brightest at a wavelength of 128.79 nanometers, which is in the far ultraviolet. That’s more energetic than the ultraviolet light from germicidal lamps, which is already more than enough to cause burns and damage the eyes. So our unlucky swordsman would be looking at instant UV flash-burns.

Lucky for him, he probably won’t have long to worry about those burns. The fireball is radiating at 1.453e10 watts per square meter. If we assume the swordsman knew he was about to fight a dragon and therefore put on some sort of bizarre medieval bronze spacesuit and polished it to a mirror finish. He’s still dead meat: copper, one of the main components of bronze (the other is most often tin) is a terrible reflector at the wavelengths in question here, bottoming out at around 30%. That means our foolish knight is still going to be absorbing 70% of the radiant heat, which will (given a long enough exposure) raise its temperature to around 20,500 Kelvin, more than hot enough to flash-vaporize the outer layers.

But if we’re nice and pretend the knight was smart enough to have his bronze armor coated with something decently reflective at all wavelengths (like ye olde dwarven electropolished electroplated aluminum), he would only absorb about 5% of the incident radiation. Well, bad news, sir knight: your armor’s still heating up to 7,600 Kelvin, which is much hotter than the surface of the sun.

Of course, producing a plume of 22,000-degree plasma takes a lot of energy (I’ll resist the urge to nitpick the biology of that), and even if we put that aside, according to the game’s own internal logic, dragonfire doesn’t hang around very long. Each in-game tick (in adventure mode or arena mode) lasts one second, and our bronze swordsman was only exposed to these ridiculous temperatures and irradiances for around 10 ticks, or 10 seconds. If we consider the fact that the plume of dragonfire is going to lose a lot of energy to radiation and thermal expansion, our knight probably wouldn’t evaporate right away. But he will probably wish to his randomly-generated deity that he did.

Metals are good conductors of heat, and copper is one of the most conductive metals, heat-wise. Therefore, although our knight only got exposed to that horrifying draconic welding arc for a few seconds, his armor’s going to soak up a lethal amount of heat from that exposure. Arc flashes, lightning, and nuclear explosions can cause second- and third-degree burns from just a few seconds’ exposure, so our night is going to be blind and scorched, and then he’s going to poach like an egg inside his armor.

Don’t worry, though–he probably won’t feel it. Unless he has superhuman willpower (and is therefore able to hold his breath while the rest of his body is bursting into flames), he’s going to take a panicked gasp, and that’ll put an end to his battle very, very quickly.

The inhalation of superheated gas kills very rapidly. The inhalation of gas at thousands of degrees (meaning: the dragon’s plume and every cubic centimeter of air in contact with it) kills instantly. So our knight would probably lose consciousness either instantly, or within 15 seconds, which is how long it takes you to pass out when your heart and/or lungs quit working. And what would be left? A knight cooked Pittsburgh rare, wrapped in a blanket of broken bronze welding slag.

So, if you think you’ve outgrown being scared of dragons, imagine this: a scaly reptilian horror older than a sequoia, fixing you with its piercing gaze and then spewing a jet of gas as hot and bright as a welding arc. That’s good–I didn’t need to sleep tonight, anyway…

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